The alarming trend of young kids on a quest to be thin can rob
your children of their very lives. Find out how you can help kids
and parents avoid the snare of food-related addictions.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, the volume in the van
increased 10 decibels as the girls socialized. A week away at camp
was like a taste of heaven for these third- and fourth-graders, and
as I kept my eyes on the road ahead, I honed in on the conversation
The conversation was innocent enough. Basically, the girls talked
about their plans for the week ahead, but the discussion stalled
when the swimming pool was mentioned. The girls fixated on the
subjects of bathing suits, looking fat, and dieting. Dieting? Not
at this age, I thought. But as the conversation grew, so did my
awareness of the girls’ knowledge of calorie counting and fat
Sadly, these girls aren’t unique. If you open any magazine or turn
on the television, you’ll see a variety of girls who typically have
one thing in common. They’re thin. Because of our society’s
obsession with appearance, younger kids are becoming more and more
focused on body image and the desire to have what society
advertises as the ideal. Because of this, the statistics on
children and eating disorders are startling.
• 42 percent of first- through third-graders want to be thinner,
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• 80 percent of fourth-grade girls are dieting, according to a
recent California Department of Health Services study. And this
statistic is echoed across the country.
• According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
80 percent of girls in grades 3 through 6 reported a displeasure
with their bodies. In fact, young girls say they’re more afraid of
becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their
• 36 percent of third-grade boys have tried to lose weight,
according to a report in Time magazine. A new disorder named
“muscle dysmorphia,” an obsession with the size and shape of your
body, is on the rise with young males who admire the buff bodies
seen on shows such as the World Wrestling Federation.
Children, especially girls, at very young ages begin to equate
attractiveness with thinness. Toys such as Barbie dolls and
Disney’s Belle give a message to girls as young as preschool that
thin bodies are the physical standard. For boys, the message is
mixed. While the muscular bodies of Batman and GI Joe characters
boast one standard, slender men dominate magazine advertisements
for companies such as The Gap and Calvin Klein.
Society has set a physical standard that children are exposed to
on a daily basis. Unfortunately, a girl who compares her body to a
fashion model’s will inevitably feel fat in comparison. Most models
weigh 23 percent less than the average American woman, and only 5
percent of women are naturally proportioned in the standards set by
the fashion community. But kids don’t know that. The unattainable
body type that’s portrayed through the media is what sets the stage
for kids’ distorted thinking about body image.
Athletics also stress the importance of having certain body types.
Sixty percent of ballerinas and other athletes whose sports require
a lean body have disordered eating and dieting practices. Some
wrestlers fast for days just to make their weight requirements for
a match. With athletic competition at an all-time high for
children, the risk of eating problems also increases.
The diet industry takes advantage of the physical standards set by
society, spending $33 billion a year in advertising. This marketing
effort is geared to adults, but children and teenagers view the
standard daily and are led to believe that self-worth is based on
THE PARENTAL MESSAGE
Society doesn’t have a monopoly of influential power over kids and
body image issues. What’s said at home can also have a powerful
impact on how children view their bodies. Studies show that teasing
children about their bodies is a contributing factor in disordered
eating. Often parents inadvertently contribute to their child’s
body image issues with comments they make or by their own personal
weight and body image issues. Critical messages sent to a child
about his appearance can set the stage for body image concerns and
low self-acceptance. A parent’s focus on body image can lead to a
child’s perception that his value is based solely on
In addition, parents don’t always model healthy eating. Many
families still force kids to sit at the table until they’ve eaten
everything on their plates. This practice can cause a child to hate
mealtime and later develop unhealthy attitudes toward food.
Parents need to accept themselves and come to terms with their
body image issues. Children learn by example and all too often are
educated about fat grams and calories from watching a parent’s
Clinical psychologist Dina Zeckhausen states, “Five- and
6-year-olds worrying about being fat and counting calories are
simply reflecting what they see around them every day.”
THE HIDDEN DANGERS
What’s the big deal? Is dieting really okay for kids? Are fat
grams the enemy?
The reality is that children need fat in their diets to complete
their neurological development through adolescence. A healthy girl
should have 18 to 25 percent of her body weight as fat, and a
healthy boy should have 10 to 18 percent of his body weight as fat,
according to kidshealth.org. Eliminating fat from a child’s diet
can have long-term health effects.
When a child cuts fat and calories from her diet, her body looks
for the fat needed to sustain life. Since the heart is the biggest
muscle in the body, it’s the first to be attacked, often resulting
in irreversible damage.
Dieting is one thing, but when dieting becomes an obsession,
eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are likely to occur.
Organs such as the liver and kidneys are often damaged as a result
of an eating disorder; even bones can be permanently
A DEEPER PROBLEM
The physical symptoms of an eating disorder can be detected and
treated more readily than the emotional ones. Children and
teenagers who struggle with eating disorders typically have
underlying issues that can take years to resolve.
Eating disorders are a cry for help and a key that opens the door
to deeper issues. An eating disorder isn’t about food; it’s about
the pain and woundedness of life.
When a child feels that life is out of control, food is an element
she alone can control. A child in an abusive situation may control
food intake since she can’t control the dysfunction around her. An
eating disorder can be a way to express emotion in a home that
doesn’t allow feelings to be expressed. The perfectionist child
striving for the perfect appearance may not eat and may exercise
excessively only to discover that she can’t be perfect enough. Or
food may become the comfort tool for a child who’s excessively
Individuals who have eating disorders become obsessed with their
food issues. People with anorexia spend 90 to 100 percent of their
waking hours thinking about food, weight, or hunger. People with
other eating disorders can spend from 20 to 65 percent of their day
concentrating on food-related issues, according to Dan Reiff,
therapist and author of Eating Disorders: Nutrition Therapy in the
Recovery Process. Obviously for children, this type of obsession
has academic and social consequences.
Every eating-disordered individual has his own story, and every
story goes beyond the issues of food and body image. While there
are many elements that can trigger an eating disorder, you can
assist in the prevention and awareness of this disease that’s
growing among children.
A WAY OUT
Don’t let a child’s age cause doubt that a problem may be present.
Become aware of these warning signs for eating disorders (from
Focus on the Family’s Dare 2 Dig Deeper series).
• Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, and dieting
• Excessive exercise
• Constant complaints of being fat in spite of normal or thin
• Frequent comparison of body image or diet with others
• Withdrawal from activities because of weight or shape
• Anxiety about being fat that doesn’t diminish with weight
• Evidence of self-induced vomiting
• Frequent visits to the bathroom immediately after meals
• Obsession with appearance accompanied by perfectionist
• Abnormal sleeping patterns
• Refusal to eat meals with family
• Food rituals (such as eating food in a rigid sequence, eating a
very limited selection of foods, cutting food into small pieces,
blotting food with napkins to remove fat)
If you see these symptoms, work with parents to reverse the
problem. First of all, create an environment that discourages
disordered eating and body image. Develop an awareness of your
behavior and not just your attitudes toward food. Who you choose
for parts in a musical, who’s called on in class, or who you ask to
help with special projects can reflect your personal attitudes
toward appearance. Strive to be inclusive as you allow all children
When serving food in your ministry, provide healthy options — not
just junk food. Teach kids about healthy living habits that include
nutrition, exercise, and spiritual growth. Teach kids coping and
life skills such as problem solving, decision making,
communication, and stress management. Plan events that involve
families eating a meal together, and educate parents on the
importance of modeling a healthy lifestyle. Provide opportunities
for kids to develop relationships with each other and significant
adults in your church.