Body image issues among young teenagers are widespread, a U.K.-based study showed.
Two in three 13-year-old girls are afraid of gaining weight, and one in three are upset about their current weight and shape, researchers at the University of College London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found. Overall, girls are more than twice as likely as boys to be "extremely" worried about gaining weight, or becoming overweight, the study concluded.
Study researcher Nadia Micali, a psychiatrist and senior lecturer at the University College London's Institute of Child Health, told The Huffington Post she was "quite surprised that even at age 13, so many parents reported these behaviors in [their] children." She and her co-investigators used data from more than 7,000 children who participated in the "Children of the 90s" study -- an ongoing look at the health and development of kids and mothers in the U.K.
Micali also expressed surprise at the "high levels" of thoughts and behaviors in adolescent boys that are typical of eating disorders. The study showed that one in five boys were distressed about their present weight or shape.
Young teens aren't just worrying about their bodies.They're taking steps to lose weight.
More than one in four girls in the study, and one in seven boys, restricted their food in the previous three months, either by fasting, skipping meals or throwing it away. Roughly 5 percent of boys and girls had binged, or overate, while less than 1 percent of boys and girls had used laxatives or made themselves vomit in order to try and lose weight.
The study findings match U.S. estimates of teens with eating disorder-like thoughts and symptoms. According to data cited by the National Eating Disorders Association, more than half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors, like skipping meals, fasting or taking laxatives.
Evidence suggests that body image issues take root at a young age: 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, explained Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, citing a study from the 1990s. More recently, a small 2010 study found that girls as young as 3 are "emotionally invested in the thin ideal." When asked to pick board game characters, they tended to be more positive about the thin ones, and negative about the overweight ones.
Experts said the findings from the new U.K study show a high number of teens engage in thoughts and behaviors that put them at risk for full-blown eating disorders. Boys and girls concerned about weight and engage in unhealthy weight-loss strategies have greater odds of being overweight or obese when they are 15.
"The more children had unhealthy weight concern behaviors and worried about their weight and shape, the more they weighed two years later," Micali said.
For those reasons, and because of the intense emotional toll poor body image can take, parents should be vigilant about their children's behaviors and listen carefully to their concerns, Grefe said.
"These statistics are today's reality," Grefe said. "Responsible parents should take it every bit as seriously as they would drug use."