Junkfood Science: “Healthy eating” messages harming teen girls

January 03, 2007

“Healthy eating” messages harming teen girls

A new study in the January issue of Pediatrics found that over a five-year period, the more media that teenage girls were exposed to, the more unhealthy it became for them. The researchers were not referring to “junk” food advertising in media, but the preponderance of “health” advice to diet, watch what you eat and be a “healthy” weight!

Girls in this study most often reading magazines with such messages were three times more likely to begin using extreme, unhealthy weight control behaviors, such as vomiting or using laxative. Girls who read magazines frequently, compared to those who didn’t, were twice as likely to use various unhealthy means to watch their weight such as fast, skip meals and smoke. The researchers were unable to separate the significance of the text of the diet and healthy eating articles from the accompanying photographs of thin models, but both give young girls the same message: that having thin, fit bodies matters.

The researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, concluded that there is a need to reduce the exposure and importance placed on messages advising young women to eat right and lose weight.

But there is a continued disconnect among those who believe these messages are helpful and necessary and the growing body of evidence for the harm that is resulting from them.

As one teen magazine spokesperson told the media, “We have always featured information to help them lead healthy lives, including fitness tips, first-person health stories, and nutrition facts. Promoting a healthy body image is a priority.”

Teen magazines, however, are just a fraction of the “healthy weight” and “nutrition” advice bombarding children nowadays.

The Palo Alto Daily News reported today that across California efforts are underway to teach and encourage “healthy” food environments in schools to deal with the “crisis” of “childhood obesity.” San Mateo County, for example, offers “free classes for teenage girls [that] discuss nutrition through a spa concept....We talk about maintaining healthy weight and skin,” said San Mateo County Public Health nutritionist Lydia Guzman.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest also encourages approved “public health campaigns promoting healthy diets.” Meanwhile, it has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission and the World Health Organization to protect children from the volume and impact of commercial promotions for foods, specifically the bad foods they don’t believe children should be eating (“relatively high” in fats, sugars and salt). CSPI doesn’t consider the evidence calling for protecting children from exposure to “healthy” eating messaging, just as it ignores the lack of support for limiting “unhealthy” food messaging, such as the review of 360 scientific papers on food marketing to children that the World Health Organization commissioned in 2004. That report, “Marketing Food to Children: the Global Regulatory Environment,” concluded that there is little evidence on whether regulating food marketing to children has been effective in encouraging more balanced diets and “little evidence on which to base future policy.” Similar rates of childhood obesity are found in European countries which have had restrictions on food advertising to children for years, it said.

Nevertheless, the American Public Health Association similarly urges parents to encourage kids to eat “healthier” foods and to fight against advertisers promoting “unhealthy eating.” A week ago the APHA announced the public health policies their organization had prioritized, including “Pandemic Flu Preparedness” and “Reversing the Obesity Epidemic.” At the conclusion of their annual meeting this past November, they issued an “Urgent Call for a Nationwide Public Health Infrastructure and Action to Reverse the Obesity Epidemic,” where they called for the “immediate mobilization of governmental, public and private agencies” and “mass communications campaigns that promote healthy eating and physical activity.”

But where is the evidence that these health initiatives are effective in reducing “childhood obesity” or are beneficial for our children?

The truth is, they have no evidence behind them. Children have always come in a variety of sizes and shapes — tall, fat, skinny or short — with their diets and activity having very little to do with it. The media makes a point of showing the most extreme examples of headless fat children in an attempt to create horror and shape public perceptions of an epidemic. But in reality, children seen around classrooms, playgrounds and neighborhoods don’t look much different than they always have. Overall, kids today are taller (height and weight are used to calculate "body mass index"), maturing faster, and falling higher on growth curves than earlier generations, reflecting in part, the fact that fewer children are struggling with childhood diseases and hunger. Yet we are to believe this is a crisis. Despite all of the hand-wringing and speculations to the contrary, our children are also healthier and there’s no evidence that this generation won’t outlive their parents, too.

It goes beyond lack of evidence for the effectiveness of programs promoting healthy eating and lifestyles in reducing childhood obesity. For more than 40 years, they have been repeatedly demonstrated to be ineffective and potentially harmful. Later, we’ll examine that evidence.

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