Junkfood Science: When health officials can't see

October 08, 2007

When health officials can't see

A major health alert was issued across England today with more troubling evidence that children and young people are being harmed from the incessant messages to eat ‘healthy’ and watch their weight. One-third of all British teenage girls admit to being on a diet, but it’s much more serious than that may sound.

Nearly half of girls, ages 13 to 18, are eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day. That’s half of the food they need for good health and normal growth and development. And, while fewer boys were dieting, a significant percentage of those were extreme dieters, eating fewer than 800 calories a day. According to the USDA/ARS calorie calculator developed by the National Academy of Sciences and recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, an average boy would need about 3,000 calories a day, more if he was more active. They’re starving themselves on about one-quarter of the calories they need.

Most disturbing, and what should be a wake up call for all of the ‘healthy’ eating proponents working with young people, is that almost all of the teenagers said that they knew how to eat healthy and most thought they were eating ‘healthy!’

International research and experts on child development and eating have been warning for years that positive nutritional messages — as well-intentioned and intuitively correct as they may seem — are beyond the grasp of young people. The messages that fats and calories are to be eaten in ‘moderation’ are taken to an extreme even by college-age young women. As has been reported previously by researchers here in the U.S., almost half of all first graders and 90 percent of high school girls are already dieting, and they believe fat-free and low-calories foods equal good nutrition. This is not benign, and young people are increasingly falling short of nutrients they need for normal growth that are supplied in ‘fattening foods.’ As the NHANES III (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), at least two-thirds of weight-conscious teenage girls, fat and thin, trying to eat ‘healthy’ are now deficient in iron, calcium and other important nutrients.

Of equal concern is the compelling body of evidence showing that restrictive eating and trying to control calories and eat ‘healthy’ or diet greatly increases young people’s chances of developing full-blown, life-threatening eating disorders, as well as suffering from life-long struggles with food.

While the UK media all reported on these worrisome findings of the Sainsbury youth diet survey of 540 teens done by researchers at BMRB Omnibus, none of them accurately reported the calorie needs for these young people. Not surprisingly, all were underestimated. Yet the most incredible thing of all, and another example of the cognitive disconnect surrounding obesity issues, was that not one media story caught that this dangerous problem was the consequence of widespread childhood obesity initiatives and the incessant ‘healthy eating’ messages.

Instead, they called for more attention to childhood obesity and quoted a nutritionist as saying: “It is clear that we need to help teenagers and their families to achieve a healthy balanced lifestyle.”

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