Children as young as six are suffering from body image anxiety, new research has warned.
A British study showed that some youngsters are dissatisfied with their body shape, with many pre-pubescent girls wanting to be thinner.
Early intervention before the age of five is necessaryDr Joao Breda
The research comes as new figures show nearly a quarter of children under five in the UK are now classed as overweight or obese – the second highest rates in a study of 28 European countries.
Few studies have previously analysed the association between psychological well-being and body mass index (BMI) in children under nine years old.
However, the new research led by Professor Pinki Sahota, of Leeds Beckett University, looked at the association of psychological well-being and BMI in primary school children.
Figures were collected from 301 pupils from eight primary schools in Leeds and psychological well-being was measured using a “body shape perception scale” while also taking into account “dieting behaviour”.
The results showed that children categorised as overweight or obese using World Health Organisation BMI growth charts had higher body shape dissatisfaction scores on average than normal-weight children.
Girls had higher body shape dissatisfaction scores, showing they had a greater desire to be thinner than boys.
Scores related to dieting behaviour showed that overweight and obese pupils reported more “dietary restraint” than their normal-weight peers.
Younger children aged six and seven also reported more dietary restraint than those aged eight and nine. Dietary restraint means that children are exhibiting dieting behaviour which may lead to them compromising the quality of their food intake at a time when they need a good quality, healthy diet for growth and development.
Prof Sahota said: “The results suggested that body shape dissatisfaction and dietary restraint behaviours may begin in children as young as six and seven years old, and there is an association with increased body mass index.
“Obesity prevention programmes need to consider psychological well-being and ensure that it is not compromised.
“Further research should be conducted on how interventions can help improve psychological well-being in this age group.”
A European study found that 23.1 per cent of British youngsters were classed as overweight or obese. The UK was second only to Ireland, at 27.5 per cent, according to the findings. They were followed by Albania (22 per cent), Georgia (20 per cent), Bulgaria (19.8 per cent) and Spain (18.4 per cent).
Kazakhstan had the lowest obesity rate (0.6 per cent), with other low-prevalence nations including the Czech Republic (5.5 per cent) Belgium (7 per cent) and Sweden (8 per cent).
Dr Joao Breda, of the World Health Organisation’s regional office for Europe, said: “Evidence suggests early intervention before five years of age is necessary if the trajectory to being overweight in children is to be arrested, and action needs to be taken to have consistent surveillance on this specific population.”