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Nutrition Accuracy in Magazines
The American Council on Science and Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to sound scientific information in public debate, has been tracking nutrition reporting in popular magazines for over 20 years. They've just released a report entitled "Nutrition Accuracy in Popular Magazines" in which they evaluated the nutrition articles in 20 different popular magazines.

The Quality of Food Advertised to Children
If you have kids, chances are they watch Nickelodeon: the cable channel's programs account for 47 out of the 50 top children's shows on television today. Those programs reach into movies, books, magazines, and websites, while the characters in those programs are used to market food products and are made into collectible toys.

Rationalizing their way into a larger pants size
12,000 Americans participated in a telephone survey between January and March, 2006. Conducted by Thomson Medstat, a healthcare information solution company (Thomson Medstat Research Brief, "Lifestyle and Obesity"; July 2006), the respondents were asked their height and weight, then a number of lifestyle questions, including how often they exercised vigorously, ate fast food or snacked on sweets, and whether they thought their overall eating habits were healthy.


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Magazine articles on weight loss and their impact on teens

A pair of female adolescents who appear to be watching television

Studies of adolescent behavior indicate that about 10% of all high school students are trying to lose (or at least maintain) weight by using diet pills, powders or liquids. About 9% of boys and 14% of girls have fasted for 24 hours or more, and 12% of girls use risky weight-loss methods such as vomiting or taking diuretics or laxatives to lose weight. These behaviors have been linked in some studies with frequent reading of popular magazines, with their focus on an idealized level of thinness. Can the magazine articles that are specifically about weight loss or dieting be linked to these behaviors?

Researchers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, designed a study called "Project EAT (Eating Among Teens)" to assess the impact of reading weight-loss articles in popular magazines on the individual teen's weight-loss behavior five years later (Pediatrics 2007;119(1):e30-e37). In the initial portion of the study, undertaken in 1999, 2,516 students in grades 7 through 12 (about ages 13 through 18) answered a written survey and had their height and weight measured (privately). The survey included the following questions:

  • How often do you read magazine articles in which dieting or weight loss are discussed?

  • During the past 6 months, how important has your weight or shape been in how you feel about yourself?

  • Have you done any of the following things to lose weight or keep from gaining weight during the past year? (With check boxes for such behaviors as eating more fruits and vegetables; exercising more; fasting, eating very little, or skipping meals; vomiting; using laxatives; or using diuretics)

Questions were also asked about binge eating, how satisfied the teen felt about specific body parts, any symptoms of depression, and their general level of self esteem.

Five years later the teens were recontacted by mail and answered a similar set of questions. After comparing the two sets of questionnaires, the researchers found, quite simply, that the more often a young woman read magazine articles about dieting and weight loss, the more likely it was that she would be dieting or engaging in deliberate weight-control behaviors five years later. She was a little over twice as likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as vomiting or using laxatives or diuretics as those young women who reported "never" or "hardly ever" reading weight-loss articles in magazines.

Boys, on the other hand, showed no clear association between weight-loss behaviors and magazine reading over the five years of the study.

What this means for you

Clearly the media exerts a great deal of influence on a young woman's perception of herself. The researchers in this study recommend that parents limit a young woman's access to these magazines and discuss with her the realities of the images portrayed in them. While that's certainly worthwhile, I think your best long-term strategy is to make a healthy lifestyle a family affair. Arm your children, male or female, with healthy eating habits and regular exercise as a normal part of life and they'll be healthier and happier throughout their lives.

First posted: April 13, 2007