A Weight On Our Minds

9th July 2010

Heather Harris looks at the relationship between teenage girls and food…

A weightier issue than acne, a heavier topic than unrequited love… when it comes to teenage girls the most emotive subject of our times is food. And it’s not always the young girls themselves who are finding the whole subject eating away at them at 2am…

While dads tend to sleep easy in their beds, much tossing and turning is caused by mothers worrying about their daughters’ eating patterns.
“At mealtimes I can’t relax. If she asks for more I panic she’ll get fat. If she asks for less I’m convinced she’s anorexic,” says Jane, mother of an intelligent, pretty 15 year old.

And she’s not alone. Read any parenting website or listen in at the school gate, and the topic moves from A-Level Grades to the eating habits of their offspring quicker than you can say ‘slim-line tonic’.

Nature doesn’t help either. It’s a scientific fact that from 12 to 18 years, storage of fat occurs at a far greater rate in girls than in boys (yet further proof that God was indeed male, perhaps?). In fact, boys usually lose body fat late in adolescence.

And the majority of boys just aren’t interested in food – except those training to be Michelin Star Chefs, of course, but even they seem to stay slim (think Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre White).

“My boys see mealtimes as an annoying break in their day. My daughter meanwhile is either on a non-carbohydrate diet or is insisting on baking cakes and licking out the bowl,” Jane, mother of three teenagers – one girl, two boys – confesses over a skinny latte.

And that’s half the problem. As mothers, what messages are we sending out about food?

As the UK charity, Care for the Family explains, “The key is being a good role model. As a mother, are you eating sensibly yourself? Avoid reading about, talking about or going on diets. And get your teens cooking. Knowing what goes into a dish can help them develop a healthy interest in food…”

Sound advice but not that easy when, even if they are cooking together and eating together, mums and daughters are often also reading together – discussing the finer merits of Cheryl Cole’s cheek bones in the latest glossy magazines.

“Be wary of over exposure to beauty and fashion magazines. Encourage your teenager to develop a healthy criticism of the world of advertising and photography!” the charity tells us.

But it’s a hard nut to crack. Research by the Kellogg’s Corporation (ironically, manufacturers of the ‘healthy cereals’ recently exposed for their high sugar and salt levels) reveals that ‘Young women base their perception of their body shape on models and celebrities, rather than on ordinary women. Statistically, though, these stars are 15-23% lower in weight and 5-6 inches taller than the ‘average’.’

No wonder, then, that only 1% of teenage girls were ‘completely happy’ with the shape of their bodies, while 10% admitted taking drugs to try to achieve their ideal size.

That’s a hard fact to swallow – but it’s one that’s backed up by the Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT) who recently reported that ‘Teenage girls as young as 15 are using the powerful drug, ‘Speed’ in a desperate bid to lose weight.’

And it doesn’t even work. Robin Herne, a drug trainer with DATT, explains, “As with all artificial appetite suppressants, once the drug wears off the stomach realises it’s empty and whatever weight came off piles back on again…”

This fluctuation in weight is another growing problem for today’s body-conscious girls. Secondary School teachers report that their female pupils are changing their size more often than they’re changing their reading books.

“I never know what’s going to greet me. There’s always someone on a crash diet, while another is comfort eating because of exam stress or boyfriend trouble!” a Head of Year Eight explains, adding that the school sees exercise as one way of combating this problem.

“Today’s teenage girls don’t seem to relate weight and exercise. They’re more concerned with what they are or are not eating rather than looking at the amount of activity they do,” remarks Kate Christian, a qualified Personal Trainer who now has an increasing number of clients under the age of 16 years.

“Mums are recognising that school sport is not enough for their teenage daughters and their local gyms don’t offer much to attract this age group, so one-to-one training is becoming more popular,” she adds.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, researchers from Australia who studied a group of 14 and 15 year old girls and boys from 44 schools, concluded, “ In adolescents, controlling weight by exercise rather than diet restriction seems to carry less risk of developing eating disorders.”

A spokeswoman for the Centre for Eating Disorders agrees, adding that children need to be encouraged to adopt a healthy attitude to exercise and eating from an early age. “Many girls put looking good in their sports gear above exercise. So if they’re already overweight they’re more reluctant to exercise…”

It’s another chicken (skin off) and egg (poached not fried) situation.

The defeated government did try to help. One of the last things on Labour’s plate before they were voted out was a recommendation for school fitness tests. In his March report The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, announced plans for secondary pupils to take these annually. Parents of those deemed to be unfit would then be sent warning letters.

Sir Liam concluded that lack of fitness during adolescence led to ‘heart disease, brittle bones and obesity’ and that it was costing the government £8.3 billion a year compared with £5.2 billion for smoking.

He warned that 10% of children are not even getting the statutory two hours a week of school sport, leading to overall teenage fitness falling by 9% every decade.

Many of the parents I interviewed shared these concerns, pointing out that the current generation of teenage couch potatoes – particularly girls – spend their time sitting in front of screens or in the car.

“And even when she does go out, whether it’s shopping or to the leisure centre – why is there always a vending machine full of rubbish food and fizzy drinks to tempt them?” questions Katie, mother of a swimming mad 14 year old. “And there are even sweets at the tills in Top Shop!”

(Surely, the clothing industry is not concerned that their poor customers will starve if forced to tackle the ten metre walk from changing room to till, or faint from hunger while waiting to be served by the size zero shop assistants?)

The more you investigate the more confused the messages about food and exercise become, although, in truth, we all know what we should be doing to improve the health of our teenage girls, and it sounds ridiculously simple: get them to eat healthily three times a day, and to exercise more.

Is it too much to ask that society gives us a helping hand – less fast food at every turn, more sports lessons in schools, local gyms offering classes for teenagers and fewer skinny role models?

Food for thought for the new Prime Minister, as he walks to work tomorrow after his bowl of muesli…

Find Your Local