A new study has found that 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet and 50% want “thinner bodies.” This is terrifying news — but not completely unexpected. There were a staggering 108 million people on a diet in the United States in 2012, and in 2013 the U.S. weight loss market raked in $60.5 billion.
From the time we can turn on a TV, open a book, or read a magazine, we are confronted with impossibly high standards for our bodies. Bodies depicted in the media are “gendered, stereotypical, and unrealistic,” as well as hyper-sexualized. Sixty-nine percent of girls in 5th through 12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
Paradoxically, our nation is simultaneously experiencing an obesity epidemic. Childhood obesity has nearly doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Nearly 20% of children aged 6-11 in the United States are obese. Our current response is to diet. Overweight people report trying 13 diets on average throughout their lifetime and 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight within 5 years.
The problem with diets is that their focus is on deprivation — deprivation of a food group, nutrient, or macronutrient. This tactic is unsustainable and normally ends up in cravings and binge eating, explaining why most dieters eventually gain back their lost weight.
There are three key issues that, if we are to raise healthy children or live healthfully ourselves, we must resolve.
1. We have a national health crisis. Overweight and obese children are likely to be overweight or obese as adults, and obesity is associated with some of the most deadly modern diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke (which, combined, kill 20x times the number of people as car accidents).
2. There are significantly more young girls on diets than are actually overweight (80% vs. 20%). We must adjust the lens through which we teach young women to view and validate themselves. Young girls as well as young boys who are at a healthy weight should be focusing on the positives — what their bodies are capable of instead of what they look like.
3. Real health concerns as well as appearance-driven weight loss attempts drive a huge number of diets, but we know based on the numbers that dieting is helping almost no one lose weight and stay healthy long-term.
This news should serve as a wake-up call to our society. Our diet-heavy, appearance-obsessed culture only further contributes to the yo-yo dieting way of life that many Americans have come to abide by. The solution, regardless of age, is a lifestyle change; one that focuses on nourishing our body through healthy habits, not dieting to be thin.
If you’re looking to lose or maintain weight, there are options other than fad-dieting. Eat when you are hungry and don’t deprive yourself. Eat foods that nourish your body, not diet foods that leave you cranky, unsatisfied, and with cravings. If you are craving something, let yourself have a little bit but make sure to watch your portion sizes. Nothing should be off limits.
The diet mentality is dangerous — especially for children who could begin yo-yo dieting from the age of 6. Aside from the health risks of dieting at such a young age, yo-yo dieting raises the risk of certain cancers, decreases metabolism, and increases hunger. Research has shown that young girls who diet at severe levels are 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months.
Whether you’re a parent, grand-parent, mentor, or friend, you are one of the most important influencers when it comes to a child’s self-worth. One study found that a child’s perception of their body was directly correlated to their mother’s perception of her body. We are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting our children from harmful beauty perceptions. So what can you do? It begins with how you treat yourself; say why you appreciate your own body, ban fat talk, and be wary of how you comment on other people’s bodies. Eat for health and nourishment, not size. Children should be taught that health is of core importance; that we should eat right to get healthy so we can live better lives — not simply to get thin.