Eating Disorders: Perilous Compulsions

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Eating Disorders: Perilous Compulsions

Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 30% of American school-age children are overweight. Half of them will grow into overweight adults. Obesity is a risk factor in high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, some malignant tumors, and shortened lifespan.

Factors attributed to childhood obesity include poor food choices and sedentary habits. Fast food meals -- often favorite choices -- typically contain 40% to 50% of their calories from fat, but these foods are low in fiber, iron, and vitamins A and C. As for lack of exercise, the title of an article in a medical publication summarized the problem: "Profusion of TV produces plump couch-potato tots." By adolescence, a child has watched 15,000 hours of television, and has been exposed to 350,000 commercials, more than half of which promote highly processed food products and soft drinks.

Linked to this problem of childhood obesity are various attempts to control dietary intake. At times, well-intentioned pressures may lead to unintended and regrettable developments. Eating disorders may develop during the adolescent years, and parents need to be aware of warning signs and symptoms. There is an emerging preoccupation with "healthy eating" and fitness among some adolescents, especially girls, that may lead to eating disorders, according to Dr. David S. Rosen, director of adolescent health at the Medical Center of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. According to Rosen, healthy eating for teenage girls parallels the "vilification of fat in the media and the increasing availability and aggressive marketing of low-fat and no-fat food options." Rosen observes that moderately limiting fat intake may be desirable, but when carried to an extreme, "the compulsive avoidance of fat begins to take on the characteristics of an eating disorder and probably requires the same kind of intervention."

Pressure to be thin is increasing. Over the last few decades, Playboy centerfold models and Miss America contestants have become leaner, with smaller busts and hips. By contrast, the average female between 17 and 24 has become heavier and heavier.

Despite the plethora of weight-reducing diets, meals-in-cans, pills, low-fat products, non-caloric sweeteners, gym equipment, exercise programs, sweat boxes, and other approaches, young people, as well as other segments of the population, are becoming more and more obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans are more overweight now than at any time since the government began to keep complete statistics in the 1960s. At present, 14% of children aged six to 11, and 12% of those aged 12 to 17 are dangerously overweight.

Risks in Dieting. "Dieting is a chief cause of obesity in America," according to Professor Judith Rodin of Yale University. "Some middle-class parents trying to save their daughters from the stigma of fat insist on severe diets, but depriving children of food may only make them more interested in eating. At some early stage in infancy, people, as well as animals, are pretty well biologically regulated. It takes something to deregulate that system. And one of the things that we know that does that is dieting. That kind of girth control begins to slow down the metabolic rate, and makes the body begin to change in order to protect itself against the reduction in calories. This causes more problems when the dieter returns to eating normally. "

Weight cycling -- popularly called "yo yo" dieting -- attracts many young women. Studies have shown that repeated attempts to lose weight, followed by weight gains, greatly increase the risk for developing heart disease. Also, people who diet frequently may develop a preference for high-fat and sugary foods, resulting in increased weight.

Crash diets, which depend on drastic calorie reduction to induce weight loss, often backfire and result in weight gain. Severely restricted caloric intake triggers a body response that slows the rate at which calories are used for daily activities.

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