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Experts sound alarm over rise in eating disorders

Around 70 per cent of girls think they are too fat Keystone Archive

Young Swiss are becoming increasingly preoccupied with their weight and body image, leading to eating disorders such as excessive dieting and bingeing.

This content was published on December 14, 2003 - 12:39

A nationwide study has shown that almost three out of four girls think they are too fat, and 40 per cent are unhappy with their bodies.

The report into the health of 16- to 20-year-olds was carried out last year by three university institutes with the support of the Federal Health Office.

It found that 16 per cent had suffered from some form of bulimia-like behaviour, while between one and three per cent are estimated to be seriously afflicted with the condition.

Pierre-André Michaud, head of the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at Lausanne University and one of the study's authors, told swissinfo that this was a very worrying trend.

“What we found from our results is there is an increase of young women aged 16 to 20 who say they are very worried about their body, their shape, and worried about their weight,” Michaud told swissinfo.

“And a substantial proportion of these women were reporting behaviour such as regularly dieting, even using laxatives or engaging in self-vomiting,” he added.

Boys too

Michaud says that boys also worry about their bodies: 20 per cent think they're too fat or even too thin, especially after seeing pictures of muscular men in magazines and on billboards.

Added to this are figures for 2002 from the Federal Statistics Office which show that 44 per cent of young women and 20 per cent of young men between 15 and 24 are underweight.

Michaud says that the media’s emphasis on the perfect body is partly to blame for the rise in eating disorders, but adds that pressures from society are also responsible.

“Probably as a result of societal changes, some young people tend not to express their worries in terms of emotions or in discussing them with their parents or their peers, but instead tend to focus on their body as an answer to these worries,” he explained.

Anorexia and bulimia

Although the figures for unhealthy eating patterns among adolescents are relatively high, Hans-Christoph Steinhausen, an expert in child and youth psychiatry at Zurich University Hospital, says the incidence of clinically diagnosed eating illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia still remains fairly low - at under one per cent.

“Dieting is a habit quite frequent among the young female adolescent population, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all these dieting young girls finally end up with a full-blown clinical disorder,” Steinhausen told swissinfo.

“The full-blown clinical cases are quite different from what you predominantly see in the population,” he added.

Steinhausen and Michaud agree that a proper study revealing the full extent of eating disorders in Switzerland is still missing.

And they warn that more help must be given to young people to enable them to resolve some of the problems related to eating and body image.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

eating disorders

Smash youth health survey 2002:
70% of girls think they are too fat.
40% are dissatisfied with their bodies.
16% were found to have suffered from some form of bulimia-like behaviour.
1-3% were estimated to be seriously afflicted with the condition.
20% of boys were unhappy with their bodies.

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