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Peer Pressure Can Carry Great Weight in Girls' Eating and Exercise Habits

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Television, movies, magazines and other popular media often get blamed for pressuring teen girls to be as thin as models. But a new study finds that peer pressure also plays a strong role in how some adolescent girls control their figures.

This isn't the first time that peer pressure has been fingered as a factor in risky teen behavior. Other studies have found that the cliques with which many teens identify can affect whether they smoke, drink or take drugs. It now appears that similar identification carries weight when it comes to body image, food and physical activity.

"Teen girls' concerns about their own weight, about how they appear to others and their perceptions that their peers want them to be thin are significantly related to weight-control behavior," says psychologist Eleanor Mackey, a postdoctoral fellow at Children's National Medical Center and lead author of the study. "Those are really important."

Estimates are that about 5 percent of teens suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, a condition characterized by not eating, and bulimia, eating and then purging. A study published last month in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that 10 percent of teen girls and about 3 percent of teen boys binge-eat at least once week.

At the same time, about a third of adolescents are overweight, while about 16 percent are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those added pounds place them at increased risk for a host of health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

To measure the role of peer pressure on eating and exercise habits, Mackey and co-author Annette M. La Greca of the University of Miami studied 236 teen girls from public high schools in southeast Florida. About a third were white; about a third were Hispanic or Latino, and roughly 20 percent were African American. The remainder were of mixed ethnicity.

All completed questionnaires probing their identification with informal but well-documented teen groupings labeled "populars" (those who are outgoing and social), "brains" (teens who enjoy school and do well academically), "burnouts" (adolescents who often get into trouble), "jocks" (those who engage in sports) and "alternatives" (teens who rebel against mainstream culture in their appearance and attitudes).

Participants answered questions about body image and weight control as well as how others appraised their appearance.

The study, which appears in this month's Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that:

· Girls who identified with the alternative and burnout peer groups were the most worried about their weight and reported taking more steps than other groups to control it, sometimes in potentially unhealthy ways.

· Participants with a higher body mass index perceived their peers to be more concerned with weight than their thinner counterparts. They also reported engaging in more dieting and other steps to control their weight than their more svelte peers.

· African American girls were less concerned about their weight than were others.

A 2007 study by the same researchers found that teens most likely to identify with the burnout group had the worst eating, exercise and weight-control behavior of all the groups. So-called brains had the best eating and workout regimens, though they also reported more dieting than other teens. Jocks and populars didn't always eat healthfully but were the most likely to get plenty of exercise and to engage in sports.

The findings offer guidance in targeting girls who might be most vulnerable to weight issues. "Health-care providers and school personnel might ask adolescent girls about their peer crowd affiliations in order to help identify adolescents with the highest levels of risky behaviors," the authors conclude.

What also seems to help build healthy eating habits in teens is encouraging family meals, according to Project Eating Among Teens, a long-term study of nearly 5,000 adolescents and their families conducted at the University of Minnesota.

The research finds that family meals are linked to better diets, including more fruit and vegetables, less soda and less dietary fat, according to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a lead investigator of Project EAT.

Children from families that regularly break bread together also seem to have a lower risk of developing eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. They're less likely to be overweight. They perform better in school and are less apt to engage in risky behavior such as taking drugs, drinking, smoking and engaging in sex.

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