Restore Default

Take a Dose of Self-Esteem and Call Me in the Morning

The number of overweight children and adolescents has tripled in the Western world during the last decade. And it’s estimated that up to 45 percent of young women have some sort of eating disorder.

Visiting scholar Jennifer O’Dea has a radical new approach: don’t tell the kids to diet, just help them feel better about themselves.

“Children, adolescents, and young adults are attempting to derive self-worth from how they look. As grown-ups, we need to counter that,” says O’Dea. She’s a senior lecturer in nutrition and health education at the University of Sydney, Australia, and a 1986 Cal alumni in public health.

O’Dea was the first researcher to demonstrate that self-esteem alone can improve body image and reduce the risk of eating disorders in teenage boys and girls.

“Young people with a poor self image are more likely to become socially isolated, inactive, emotional eaters,” O’Dea said. “I believe if you treat overweight children with a good dose of self-esteem, they’ll be more physically and socially active and interested in taking care of themselves.”

The College’s Center for Weight and Health featured O’Dea in a Valentine’s Day conference to promote positive body image, called “Love Your Body.” More than 200 health professionals and educators attended the day-long conference at Clark Kerr campus.

“I think the medical community is a bit desperate. We have a 90 percent failure rate at treatment of overweight and eating disorders in young people,” O’Dea said. “Its time to admit we’ve failed and adopt a new paradigm.”

She’s also studying data collected by CNR cooperative extension specialist Patricia Crawford to find out which comes first: low self esteem or overweight.

O’Dea first considered her self-esteem approach while she was studying iron-deficient anemia in girls 11-16 years old. “All they wanted to talk about was their weight. That was the most important issue to them.”

In the past, educators thought they could prevent eating disorders by teaching girls and young women about nutrition and the health consequences of disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa. In fact, they were just teaching kids new things to try to lose weight.

“That type of education doesn’t get to the core issues. We need to help kids feel better about themselves,” O’Dea said.

And O’Dea predicts that a new epidemic of eating disorders is about to explode—that of boys and young men. In a recent study of 100 male college students, O’Dea found that 20 percent of them worried about their weight and shape and followed strict rules about eating. An additional 3 to 8 percent exhibited eating or exercise disorders.

“With men it’s a double-edged sword,” said O’Dea. “They incorrectly believe that they shouldn’t have any body fat and at the same time want muscularity. Those are almost physiologically impossible to achieve simultaneously, and their goals put them at risk for eating disorders, sports injuries, and steroid abuse.”

O’Dea says in the past, eating disorders were considered a gender issue. But she believes pervasive and unrealistic advertising images are more to blame. “Body image is the perfect marketing tool because you will never achieve the perfect look and it breeds a chronic discontent and self-deficiency in our youth. We can break the cycle by helping children feel better about themselves,” said O’Dea.

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