How Young is Too Young to Start Dieting?

I can't remember when I started trying to lose weight -- I think it was somewhere around 5th grade.  (Actress Ginnifer Goodwin, now 32, beat me -- she joined Weight Watchers at 9).  But now we're finding that there can be emotional consequences from being put on a diet too early in life.

According to Jen Weigel at the Chicago Tribune, the last thing people with children who are a little too pudgy should do is bug them about it.  She quotes a woman, who should know, whose mom was obsessed with her food intake, Karen Kataline, author of "Fatlash: Food Police & the Fear of Thin. "She had unresolved issues about weight and appearance and she wasn't happy with her own body."

Kataline says that her mother was obsessed with her weight from infancy.

Now mine didn't start quite that early, but almost since I can remember I, and a cousin, were teased about being overweight by our stringy, fast-metabolism siblings.

Children as young as six and eight hate their thighs, bemoan their chubby bellies, and long for leaner legs," write Angela Haupt at usnews.com. "Nearly half of boys and girls in grades three to six want to be thinner, research suggests, and about 37 percent have already dieted," she reports. "Often, they’re spurred by mocking at school or parents who push weight-awareness at an early age."

"Fat has become the boogieman of our time," she quotess British Columbia-based eating-disorder counselor Sandra Friedman, author of When Girls Feel Fat: Helping Girls Through Adolescence. "Kids are counting calories before they even have any idea what a calorie is."

I've written about this here before but one of my earliest indications that this was so was when my son's four-year-old friend said she could eat half her sandwich, she didn't want to gain weight.

Haupt adds that most experts warn that the word "diet" shouldn't be used with children or teens; the emotional and physical consequences are too risky. "In one study, researchers asked normal-weight middle school students if they intended to diet in the future—and when they followed up a few years later, those who had said 'yes' weighed more than the non-dieters did. "The act of dieting, for the most part, leads to further weight problems,"  registered dietitian Melinda Johnson, a lecturer in the nutrition program at Arizona State University, told Haupt. "It's not appropriate for the vast majority of kids to go on a weight-loss diet."

Dieting in childhood can lead to physical problems that may prove difficult to reverse, even years later, Haupt says. "One of the most common issues is vitamin and nutritional deficiencies. Stunted growth, delayed puberty, and osteoporosis become real concerns when kids follow restrictive diets that don't meet their nutritional needs. Bones grow rapidly during childhood, for example, typically reaching peak mass by age 20. Kids who skimp on calcium are inviting brittle bones that break easily. For children, almost every dieting approach can be problematic."

But what if your child is approaching obesity and you're concerned?  "The most effective way to keep children at a healthy weight, say experts, is to adopt a whole-family approach that emphasizes a balanced diet and adequate calories," Haupt says. Rather than focusing on cutting calories, the emphasis should be on improving diet quality and making modest changes that can make a big difference—choosing water or nonfat milk in lieu of soda and juice, and eliminating processed foods. "Sometimes that equals fewer calories, but that's not really the point. It's about improving the quality of those calories."

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