Middle School Can Mean The Beginning Of Eating Disorders

Aug. 28, 2002

While obesity is becoming a problem for U.S. children, the transition to middle school can sometimes lead to eating problems and unsafe dieting practices. Two professors at Baylor University recently examined when and why pre-adolescents begin dieting and found that while a majority of these children were of normal weight, a large percentage felt they were too heavy. The research findings were reported in the August 2002 issue of "Today's Dietician."

"If more information were available concerning typical dieting practices and eating patterns among this age group, then healthcare professionals would be able to recognize warning signs of harmful dieting and hopefully prevent potential teenage eating problems," said Dr. LuAnn Soliah, professor and director of nutrition sciences at Baylor and co-author of the study.

Soliah and Dr. Janelle Walter, professor of family and consumer sciences at Baylor and co-researcher, found that 40 percent of middle school and junior high students surveyed had dieted to lose weight at least once. The average age to begin a diet was age 10, with almost no one starting a diet before age 8. Girls made up 62 percent of the dieters, with improving the appearance the number one reason to lose weight.

Of potential concern is the fact that while 19 percent of the girls were classified as overweight, only 43 percent were happy with their current weight. Girls were also more likely to use unsafe dieting practices, such as diet pills, fasting and bulimic behaviors, to lose weight. Of the students who had dieted, 26 percent engaged in risky dieting.

Coincidentally, one out of three boys actually was overweight but didn't necessarily think there was a weight problem. Many boys viewed themselves as being thin or very thin.

Soliah and Walter also found that five percent of the students surveyed smoked and most drank a substantial amount of sodas every day, on average 20 ounces, which could contribute to weight problems in that sodas provide no nourishment but are tempting choices for an adolescent.

In previously published research, Soliah and Walter found that students in high school and college continue to be dissatisfied with their weight, although the majority of the students were either of normal weight or were underweight. Most cited a desire to improve appearance as the main reason for dieting.

"The fear of weight gain may be so powerful and the stigma placed on the overweight population so strong that it leads to unclear thinking and weight dissatisfaction," Soliah said.

For more information on the research, contact Soliah at (254) 710-6258.

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