July 13, 2007 / 4:43 PM / 12 years ago

Purging rare in preteens, but diets fairly common

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study of preteen girls has found that seriously disordered eating behavior, such as binge-eating and purging, is exceedingly rare in this age group. However, the researchers did find that among the 9- to 13-year-olds they surveyed, 13 percent reported dieting at some point in the previous month.

“You would like to think, in my opinion, that none of them had been on a diet,” Dr. Patricia A. Colton of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health.

Colton and her colleagues sought to determine if a widely used questionnaire, the Children’s Eating Attitudes Test, does an adequate job of spotting preteens at risk of eating disorders. They administered the questionnaire to 409 girls, and interviewed them using a standardized format used to identify eating disorders in children 7 to 14 years old.

The questionnaire, which the girls filled out themselves, overestimated the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors, which included dieting. Colton explained that this is likely because at this young an age it was difficult for them to distinguish on their own between actually going on a diet and thinking about doing so.

As the team reports in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, interviews revealed that 14.7 percent of the girls had experienced some type of eating disturbance in the previous month, with 13 percent reporting dieting, 1.7 percent exercising excessively to control their weight at least once, and 1 percent binge eating. However, none of the girls reported making themselves vomit or taking laxatives, diuretics or diet pills to lose weight.

The girls who did report dieting were significantly heavier, on average, than their peers who did not, Colton pointed out. The finding is troubling, she said, because dieting has not been shown to be an effective way for young girls to lose weight, and has been linked to a higher risk of disordered eating.

“There is no good evidence, for example, that having an overweight preteen girl on a diet is in the end going to improve her situation, and in fact it may worsen it,” Colton said.

“The public health messaging on this is very muddled,” she commented. On the one hand, rates of overweight and obesity are going up very rapidly in children, but on the other hand, Colton said, dieting, along with being heavier than one’s peers, are the two leading risk factors for developing an eating disorder.

SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, July 2007.

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