A turning point for girls

Girls ages 9 to 12 are especially susceptible to weight gain. How can parents and schools encourage healthy habits without going too far?

By Catherine Price
Published January 9, 2007 7:00PM (EST)

There are plenty of reasons to be grateful not to have to relive adolescence, but here's another.

A new study in the Journal of Pediatrics, reported on by Health Day News, suggests that girls are most susceptible to weight gain between the ages of 9 and 12 -- precisely the ages, if my own memory serves, when many girls start to hate their bodies and become obsessed with weight.

The study followed over 2,300 girls ages 9 and 10 for at least a decade, keeping track of their height, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. (The study group was roughly equally divided between white and black girls.)

At the end of the study, 10 percent of the white girls were judged to be overweight (up from 7 percent at the beginning of the study), as were 24 percent of the black girls (up from 17 percent). Particularly alarming, though, was the timing of the increase: According to Health Day News, "girls were 1.6 times more likely to become overweight when they were aged 9 through 12 than later in adolescence. And girls who were overweight during childhood were 11 to 30 times more likely to be obese as young adults."

Type II diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, increased risk of cardiovascular disease ... by now, most people know that carrying extra weight can cause big problems. These findings help us pinpoint a time in girls' lives when they are most likely to veer toward obesity. If we could intervene in these critical years, we might have a better chance at staving off major health problems down the road.

But what's the solution? As the New York Times reported Monday, controversy has flared over the practice in some school districts of sending home body-mass index (BMI) reports to children's parents, alerting those whose offspring are, or are in danger of becoming, overweight. The Times article describes a 6-year-old girl who now "barely touches her dinner" after learning that she is in the 80th weight percentile. (The girl is actually at a healthy percentile -- the 85th is the cutoff.) Another girl described in the article, age 8, brags about weighing 68 pounds. So something is going wrong.

Part of the issue here is quite simple: We're doing the exact same thing to our kids as we're doing to ourselves -- relying too much on charts and formulas to evaluate our bodies, instead of emphasizing habits that we know lead to health: Consuming fewer calories, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and exercising more. Does a parent really need a BMI report card to realize that his or her child is dangerously heavy?

Also, should we be spending time and money quantifying kids by BMI scores -- which, by the way, don't take into account muscle mass -- instead of questioning, for example, why the hell schools are serving kids funnel cakes for breakfast? (According to the Times, the Southern Tioga School District does exactly that -- though it made the supposedly "healthy" choice of eliminating powdered sugar from the deep-fried treats.) Why not put the BMI-calculating money toward providing lower-fat, higher-nutrient meals for kids, classes in basic nutrition, and mandatory athletics? If we teach kids to take care of their bodies and to enjoy the feeling that comes with eating right and exercising regularly, we'll empower them to prevent health problems on their own -- and to avoid eating disorders on both sides of the spectrum. Would that adults would do the same.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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