Two-thirds of 13-year-old girls are afraid of gaining weight and more than half are avoiding certain foods to avoid getting fat, a major scientific study revealed yesterday.
A study of 7,000 youngsters – the first of its kind conducted among British children – found an alarming number are becoming body-conscious by their early teens.
By the age of 13 one in three girls (34 per cent) and one in five boys (21 per cent) are “upset or distressed” about their weight and shape.
More than half of girls (53 per cent) are avoiding fatty foods and a quarter (26 per cent) are restricting their food intake by skipping meals or throwing food away.
Just over a quarter of girls (27 per cent) and just under a quarter of boys (23 per cent) are exercising to lose weight.
But, alarmingly, the study found that those who are trying to control their weight at such an early age are actually more likely to gain weight.
Those who engage in unhealthy weight control strategies had 40 per cent increased odds of being overweight and were 90 per cent more likely to be obese by the age of 15.
The report’s author Dr Nadia Micali, a clinical scientist at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), said the results show a worrying trend among young people.
She said: “It is very concerning to find just how common these behaviours are from the young age of 13.
“Most importantly, we found a connection with certain behaviours and higher weight two years later, which has important public health implications for the prevention of obesity
“These are complex issues and this study did not look into the reasons why, we are doing more work on this.
“People often bash the media for promoting these feelings but there are many factors involved such as issues of self-esteem and peer pressure.”
It is estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 adolescents in the UK have eating disorders.
The study used data from over 7,082 participants in the Children of the 90s project at Bristol University, which has followed the development of 14,000 babies born in the early 1990s.
It found a marked difference between the sexes, with girls more than twice as likely as boys to be “extremely worried” about gaining weight (11.5 per cent versus 4.7 per cent.
However, the study found the use of extreme weight loss methods such as using laxatives and vomiting was rare at this age in both girls (0.23 per cent) and boys (0.16 per cent).
But this could be because the study relied on answers given by parents rather than the child themselves, Dr Micali explained.
The study concluded: “Early adolescence is an age of major changes and transitions; therefore, the social and psychological implications of ED [eating disorder] psychopathology need consideration.
“Because of the public health impact of obesity, it is important to understand pathways that might lead to adolescent obesity, and prevention of disordered eating might need to be included in obesity prevention strategies.
“Future work should clarify whether the dimensions identified are themselves precursors or early manifestations of full-blown ED that could be targeted for prevention.”
The study, entitled Frequency and Patterns of Eating Disorder Symptoms in Early Adolescence is publishing in the Journal of Adolescent Health.