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

A study of teen girls in Florida showed that eating and exercise habits differed from one social group to another. Researchers think this may help spot girls with weight issues.
A study of teen girls in Florida showed that eating and exercise habits differed from one social group to another. Researchers think this may help spot girls with weight issues. (By Sophia Vourdoukis -- Getty Images)
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Adolescent Health body
Over-scheduled teens have less time to enjoy adolescence and more health problems.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008; Page HE06

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.

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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:

ยท 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.

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