A few weeks ago you may remember that my colleague Dr. Rob Lees wrote an article on the McCreary Centre Adolescent Health Survey (2008 results) which asks students in grades 7-12 various questions about their lives, everything from exercise to eating habits to drug use and sexual activity. Rob’s article highlighted the survey’s findings on physical health, exercise, and healthy living. And this week we continue with that series as I emphasize the findings on weight and body image.
Why would it be important to ask youth about their thoughts on this topic? Perhaps program development, policy regarding vending machines, health promotion opportunities, or namely, awareness and prevention of unhealthy behaviours related to weight and body image such as eating disorders and low self esteem.
According to the survey, 82% of girls and 73% of boys stated they were at a healthy weight. 6% of both genders said they were underweight, and 21% of males and 12% of females said they were overweight or obese. How do we keep those healthy weight numbers high and continuing to rise? Research has shown that there are five ways to reach or maintain a healthy body weight: reduce screen time, exercise, watch out for proportion distortion, eat five servings of fruits and veggies a day, and don’t skip breakfast.
Another finding was that only 20% of males and 11% of females reported being satisfied with their body image, with 54% of healthy weight females trying to lose weight, and 34% of healthy weight males trying to gain weight. How can we as parents, educators, and community members help to promote positive and healthy body image for all children and adolescents? Tips like: avoid talking negatively about weight, food, and bodies; limit media messages and be an active media interpreter; expand your definition of beauty and expose distortion like airbrushing; be a role model with regard to your own body and body image; never criticize a child’s body and work on complimenting actions not looks.
The survey also noted that females were more likely to report dieting to lose weight (46% compared to 16% of males) as well as engaging in activities such as binge eating and purging. Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are the most common chronic illnesses in the female adolescent population, with an incidence of up to 5%. Meaning that of the 30,000 students who completed the questionnaire, if half of them were female then potentially up to 750 adolescent girls in the Fraser Valley may be suffering from an eating disorder.
What can we do as a community? Well, schools have taken these concerns to heart and have implemented changes such as breakfast programs, daily exercise requirements, and smarter vending machine choices. Parents have to get involved as well – exercising together, eating healthy meals together, and talking about cultivating positive body image. But do we have more work to do? Yes…always.
The message to take home, with each of our articles in the McCreary series, is that overall most BC teens are doing well, and reporting healthier behaviours than students 10 years ago. This tend will hopefully continue so that the next generation will be even healthier in all aspects of their lives.
Eryn Wicker (M.A., R.C.C.) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team with the Ministry if Children and family development in Chilliwack.