A study of British school children has found that girls as young as six are going on diets.
The children are already unhappy with their bodies and trying to lose weight.
Eating disorder charities spoke of their sadness that youngsters are getting paranoid about their weight at the most carefree time of their life.
Along with the growing obesity problem, anorexia rates have also risen. Record numbers of sufferers are being admitted to British hospitals. Some patients are as young as nine and the figures have doubled in a decade.
The study findings raise questions pointing towards the anti-obesity drive in schools. The child measurement programme – which involves children being weighed and measured in school according to their BMI – has drawn criticism from parents of children as young as four who have received letters telling them their child must go on a diet.
Researcher Meaghan Christian said: ‘I think this shows that children are picking up on body image problems at a younger age than ever before. It is not something you’d want six year olds to be worried about.’ She said that having a negative body image could make it harder for the children to lose weight when they are older. It may also raise their risk of anorexia.
Dr Christian said childhood obesity programmes must take care not to stigmatise the condition. She added that professional weight loss programmes usually focus on getting children to maintain their weight – rather than lose it, to ensure they have all the nutrients they need as they grow.
Mary George, of the eating disorder charity Beat, said: ‘Throwaway comments can have a lasting effect and we should challenge ourselves not to make negative comments about shape, size and avoid conversations around dieting within earshot of our children.’
Last year guidance from Public Health England suggested parents should be phoned up and told if their child is too fat.
It said school nurses could offer parents advice on how to help their child lose weight through better nutrition and exercise.