Young people are subjected to a lot of pressure these days from TV and the Internet: how to act, what to buy and, most of all, how to look. Is popular culture giving adolescents unrealistic expectations about their weight? A new study in the U.K. shows that the scales are finely balanced.
According to research by the charity Cancer Research UK, more than a third of overweight and obese teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 don't see themselves as too heavy. The study asked around 5,000 children whether they considered themselves overweight, underweight or the optimum weight. They then checked their answers against their Body Mass Index (BMI) to see how the teenagers actually measured up.
The good news was that 73 percent of them were within the normal-weight range. A further 20 percent, however, were overweight with 7 percent overall falling into the obese category. Of these, about 40 percent said they thought they were about the right weight. A very few — 0.4 percent — said they thought they were underweight. Of those who were within the range for normal weight, more than 80 percent saw themselves as being the right size — 10 percent said they were too thin and 7 percent thought they were too fat. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, girls were more likely to see themselves as overweight than boys.
According to kidshealth.org, a third of all children in the U.S. are now considered overweight or obese with 17 percent, or 12.7 million children, now considered obese. Increasingly sedentary lifestyles and a demand for junk food both play their part in this. The habits of a lifetime are often learned early and so overweight kids all too regularly become overweight adults — risking high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke.
Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, says: "It's important that young people who are too heavy have support to be more active and make healthy changes to their diet — being aware that they are above a healthy weight could be a first step. Making these changes as teenagers could help protect them from cancer as adults."
The new report, which was recently published in the International Journal of Obesity, highlights the way young people see themselves in the glare of the media's current — some would say unhealthy —fixation on body image. Professor Jane Wardle of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London says the results of the study tell a good as well as a bad story. "This study was a cause for celebration and concern," she says. "Young people who think they're overweight when they're not can sometimes develop devastating eating disorders, so we're delighted that most of the normal-weight teenagers had a realistic view of their body size."
It must be remembered the Body Mass Index is not the only way to measure health in children. Some even suggest the BMI system is flawed and that it only distorts the true picture. Whatever the truth of the matter, allowing impressionable young minds to develop an honest and sensible self-image is vitally important if they are to avoid the risks of childhood obesity and grow up with healthy eating and related lifestyle habits. An understanding of realistic expectations with regard to weight is a key part of that. "We need to find effective ways of helping too-heavy teenagers slim down and maintain a healthier weight," says Wardle, "and it's vitally important that we find out whether it helps if they are more aware of their weight status. There are no easy answers."