Honey, I shrunk the wrong kids

Amid a government campaign to persuade the nation’s children and their parents that they must stay fit and slim, a new British study shows that girls as young as five are unhappy with their bodies and want to be thinner.

According to a study of girls aged between five and eight, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, nearly half (46,9%) wanted to be thinner, while 45,7% said they would go on a diet if they gained weight. Just 11 of these girls (14%) were actually overweight.

Messages about weight control and healthy eating may be getting through to children and their families — but are they getting through to the wrong youngsters, and the wrong families? Are public information campaigns aimed at older, fatter children somehow being imbibed by littler, thinner ones, and taken too seriously?

Academics think this could be part of the problem. Dr Andrew Hill, of Leeds University Medical School, says research among more than 200 eight-year-olds has shown they have a high awareness of the government’s campaign against obesity. ”We’ve got the message through loud and clear to the general public, but it’s also filtered through to groups it was never intended to reach,” he says. ”No one wants six-year-olds taking matters into their own hands and reducing their calorific intake.”

But, of course, public health campaigns are only part of all this; little girls are subject to all sorts of pressures from their peers, from the media, from everyone around them.

Not surprisingly, there’s already work to show that girls are influenced by the messages their mothers give: it’s not rocket science that a mother who is always on a diet is likely to infect her daughter with similar concerns.

But don’t let’s beat ourselves up: no woman is an island, and who is the superhuman among us who can extricate herself from the mesh of media hype? Nonetheless, there’s plenty of evidence that children who restrict their calorific intake too much could be affecting their development. Kids’ brains need fats to grow — children whose diets don’t contain the right nutrients could end up with not just physical problems, but mental-health problems as well. — Â

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