Obesity, Dieting, and Body Satisfaction
When the intake of calories exceeds total energy expenditure, weight gain results. Excessive weight gain can lead to obesity, which is defined as weighing more than 20% over one’s ideal weight based on height, sex, and body composition. Several decades ago, a section on obesity, dieting, and body image would probably not have been included in textbooks—most certainly not in a section describing the development of school-age children. Unfortunately, the prevalence of obesity among young children has increased significantly in recent years (Heinberg, Thompson, & Mateson, 2001). Approximately 25% of children and adolescents are obese or at risk of becoming obese (Troiano & Flegal, 1998). The prevalence rates are higher for Blacks and Hispanics than they are for Whites and Asians and are inextricably tied to socioeconomic status. The origins of obesity have been traced to genetics, sedentary lifestyles, increased television viewing, and high-fat diets as well as socioeconomic status (Beunen et al., 1998; Drewnowski, 2004).
Obesity has a strong developmental component, with obesity in childhood predictive of obesity later in life. Both physical and psychological consequences may result from being overweight or obese. Children who are obese are at risk for hypertension, respiratory disease, type 2 diabetes, and orthopedic disorders (Hill & Pomeroy, 2001). Heavier weight has also been associated with lower self-esteem and exclusion from peer groups (Miller & Downey, 1999). Psychosocial problems may include persistent teasing, which may produce body-image problems and eating disturbances (Gardner, Stark, Friedman, & Jackson, 2000; Heinberg, 1996).
The most overweight children in the program often are not included in group games and are the target of teasing.
Obesity may also increase body dissatisfaction. For example, researchers surveyed 8- to 10-year-olds and found that 55% of the girls and 35% of the boys were dissatisfied with their size (Wood, Becker, & Thompson, 1996). Girls typically want to be thinner, while boys desire to be larger and more muscular (Smolak, Levine, & Thompson, 2001). In addition, European American girls generally have greater body dissatisfaction than African American girls. Body dissatisfaction can lead school-age children (and adolescents) to engage in caloric-reducing behavior such as dieting or hyperexercise.
Researchers surveyed more than 16,000 9- to 14-year-old boys and girls and found that only 20% of the 9-year-old girls were trying to lose weight compared to 44% of the 14-year-old girls (Field et al., 1999). In the study, girls were more likely to exercise than to diet, but the information on body fat, muscle, and physical activity in this chapter would suggest that a reduced balanced diet in addition to increased exercise is critical for weight loss in girls. Of the 9-year-old boys in this study, 17% were trying to lose weight while 19% of the 14-year-olds were. They also were more likely to use exercise to control their weight. Information from this chapter would predict that increased exercise is sufficient for weight loss in boys.
Body dissatisfaction and dieting may be influenced by factors such as comparing oneself to media standards, peers, parents’ weight attitudes and behaviors, sexual abuse, and early puberty maturation (Muir, Wertheim, & Paxton, 1999; Vander Wal & Thelen, 2001).
While observing in the recreation program, you are surprised to overhear a group of 10-year-old girls talking about who has the best shape.
Research findings have indicated that many school-age children are struggling with a weight problem that may affect their health as well as how they feel about themselves. Even when children are not obese, they often desire their bodies to be different. Parents, educators, and practitioners need to be aware that body dissatisfaction, dieting, and obesity are no longer problems that are relegated to developing adolescents. We need to be knowledgeable about the determinants of weight and body size and the importance of physical activity and exercise, and we need to impart this knowledge to school-age children.
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