Young people * Women's health * Healthy living * Weight loss * Mental wellbeing

Teenage girls' body image linked to eating disorders

Teenage girls  body image linked to eating disorders False belief that they are overweight increases risk

Girls who are unable to accurately assess their own weight are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, even if their weight is healthy or below average.

And this body-image distortion may be a better way to predict future unhealthy eating habits than the more usual body dissatisfaction measure, according to the researchers behind these findings.

Study author Janet M. Liechty commented: "body-image distortion appears to be a more discriminating indicator of distress than body dissatisfaction, but it's not something that's typically screened for by health-care providers."

And she warned that "usually, teens and their parents only get weight-related feedback from the doctor when the child is overweight. But kids of any weight can struggle with body-image, and poor body-image can negatively affect medical outcomes in ways we often don't recognize."

Liechty looked at over 5,000 non-overweight adolescent girls in the U.S. She compared their actual weight with what they thought their weight was. Those that believed they weighed more than their real weight were further analysed.

Using mathematical modelling techniques, she used this data to predict the chances that the girls would adopt one of three weight loss behaviours: exercise, dieting, and extreme ways of losing weight such as laxatives, diet pills and purging.

This showed that body-image distortion predicts the onset of dieting, and the onset of extreme and unsafe ways to lose weight.

"What this means is, a girl with a distorted body-image is at much greater risk for resorting to unsafe dieting and extreme weight-loss methods than a girl without body-image distortion, even if she doesn't need to lose weight," Liechty said.

Worryingly, body image distortion does not increase the chances that girls will adopt a health weight loss regime, such as increased exercise, suggesting that it motivates girls to use unhealthy methods instead.

Overweight teens who desire to lose weight need support and a sensible, sustainable plan, Liechty says.

"Parents can encourage healthy eating and exercise habits from the start by leading by example, but if teens want to lose weight, parents should take them to the doctor or health-care professional and discuss how much they should lose, at what pace, and how to do it safely in a careful, planned way," she said.

This article was published on Mon 21 June 2010

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