Diet Sense

Article excerpt

These days, body image often trumps health in our obsession with achieving a "perfect body." We're surrounded by photographs that might make us feel that the way we look is more important than being healthy. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no magic diet or pill that will make us look like someone we are not. Short-term sacrifice of your health for the sake of appearance can have long-term consequences.

Not all young dancers who go on diets need to lose weight. Having a distorted body image is like looking into a funhouse mirror: You see yourself as fatter than you really are. Often pressure to be slim from friends, parents and teachers can create this distortion.

Try shifting your focus to finding a weight that is right for you. A healthy weight takes into account how much muscle you have (muscle weighs more than fat, so the leaner you are, the more you can weigh). It also takes into account your age, height and activity level. "Crash" diets or other extreme measures that drastically cut back on calories-usually by eliminating food groups, like carbohydrates or fat-may cause quick weight loss, but unless you change your habits, all of those pounds (and often more) are usually gained back.

A visit to your doctor or nutritionist will give you a realistic idea of a healthy weight for your height and bone structure. The best way to determine whether you need to lose weight is to have a body composition measurement that assesses both body fat and muscle. Although it's very individual, body fat between 16 and 21 percent is healthy for athletic teenage girls. For athletic teenage boys, body fat between 8 and 12 percent is healthy. Body-fat percentages that are too low can cause many problems, including fatigue and irregular menstrual cycles for girls. For boys, it can affect hormone production, hinder muscle development, deplete energy and lower immunity. Remember, you may not have an objective point of view when it comes to weight, so let a trusted doctor or nutritionist help you decide if you actually need to lose weight.

There are healthful ways to lose weight if your body-fat percentage is too high, and you can see visible fat (most of our fat is internal and surrounds our organs to cushion them). Fad dieting, however, can keep teenagers from getting the nutrients and calories they need to grow properly. If your diet doesn't provide enough calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D, bones may not develop properly, which may increase the risk of osteoporosis later in life. Many teens stop drinking milk and opt for sodas, thereby diminishing their calcium and vitamin D intake.

Also, if your diet is deficient in iron, you may develop anemia, which can make you tired. Foods that contain iron include red meat, raisins, spinach, dried apricots and fortified cereals. Those who eliminate carbohydrates lose important sources of iron and don't get enough B vitamins for energy production.

Your body needs to maintain a healthy level of fat, but it's also important to know how much you can eat to maintain that level. Everyone has a "basal metabolic rate." This is the number of calories that your body needs every day just to stay alive; it includes the calories that the brain and nervous system need, as well as the calories that your lean body mass needs. …