October 2, 2007 / 2:52 PM / 12 years ago

Weight issues plague heavy, thin teens alike

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Many teenagers are dealing with weight issues, from obesity to eating disorder symptoms, and these problems seem to have some causes in common, new research suggests.

Subway riders walk through the turnstiles while leaving the U.S. Open in New York September 4, 2007. Many teenagers are dealing with weight issues, from obesity to eating disorder symptoms, and these problems seem to have some causes in common, new research suggests. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

In a five-year study of more than 2,500 teenagers, researchers found that 44 percent of girls and 29 percent of boys were overweight, habitual binge-eaters or had taken unhealthy measures to lose weight — such as abusing laxatives, using diet pills or vomiting.

In many cases, these problems overlapped. Among overweight girls, 40 percent reported binge-eating, extreme dieting or both, the study authors report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“We usually look for these behaviors in very thin girls, but here we see a very high prevalence in overweight girls,” lead study author Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said in a statement.

What’s more, she and her colleagues found, some of the same factors seemed to underlie the risks of becoming overweight, binge-eating or taking extreme measures to shed pounds.

In particular, being teased by a family member appeared to raise the risk of all three problems in girls. Girls who reported such teasing at the start of the study were twice as likely as their peers to be overweight five years later, and they were 41 percent more likely to have tried unhealthy weight-loss tactics.

Among the other risk factors were preoccupation with weight, having a mother who dieted, and frequently reading magazine articles on weight loss.

On the other hand, weight-related problems were less common among girls who said they frequently sat down to meals with their families, and that family meals were a positive, enjoyable experience.

Among boys, binge-eating and extreme dieting were much less common, even though just as many boys as girls were overweight — about one quarter at the study’s start. But when boys did develop other weight-related problems, some similar risk factors seemed to be at work.

The findings point to the damage that weight-teasing, and an overemphasis on the importance of weight, can have on teenagers, according to Neumark-Sztainer.

“We have seen over the years that it does not work to make people feel worse about their bodies,” she explained. “The data are striking — talking about weight, worrying too much about diet, focusing on it increases risk not only of eating disorders

She added that in most families where kids are teased about their weight, it’s not meant to be abusive. Family members “just don’t realize how hurtful it is,” Neumark-Sztainer said.

She recommended that if parents want to help their overweight children, they should not talk about weight loss. Instead, they should set an example by eating a healthy diet and exercising, and encouraging their kids to do the same.

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, November 2007.

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