In further testament to the growing problem of adolescent body image, a new study of 7,000 UK teens between the ages of 13 and 15 has found that six in 10 girls and four in 10 boys are worried about gaining weight or getting fat.

Conducted by the UCL Institute of Child Health, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the study found startling proportions of teens are either unhappy with their current body image or face constant anxiety about that image changing. The trend, admittedly, is not new. A collection of forces have been blamed for instilling in people poor notions of health, including mainstream media sources and surrounding social forces. Aesthetic has started to trump fitness, form becoming more important than function. And now with the latest study, evidence reveals the developing generation has started absorbing those ideas already.

“We have found that behaviors typical of an eating disorder are more common in early adolescence than previously thought,” lead author and clinician scientist at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Dr. Nadia Micali said in a statement, “and not just in girls but also in boys, and that they are associated with a range of social and psychological problems in the child.”

The survey included teens participating in the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol, and it’s the first, the researchers claim, to investigate eating disorder behaviors among teenagers outside the U.S. The team found such behaviors are linked to a variety of surrounding instabilities, from social pressure felt among friends and families to personal psychological battles fought internally.

Among the alarming prevalence of body image issues among boys and girls, other facts stood out from the survey. For example, one in three girls (34 percent) and one in five boys (21 percent) were upset or distressed about weight and shape. Worse, a quarter of girls (26 percent) and one in seven boys (14.5 percent) had restricted their food intake through fasting, skipping meals, or throwing away food in the previous three months.

But perhaps the most disturbing finding was the long-term effect of these unhealthy self-images, as they often translated into unhealthy behaviors. Boys and girls who engaged in unhealthy weight loss strategies were 40 percent more likely to be overweight by age 15 and 90 percent more likely to be obese. This means that seeing advertisements of skinny, airbrushed celebrities or chiseled models doesn’t just burrow into teens’ psyches, influencing their body image; it also compels them to act. And too often, those acts are destructive.

“Given that many adolescents with these behaviors and disorders don't come to medical attention, we should help develop strategies and tools that allow parents and teachers to highlight these concerns,” Dr. Micali said. “In the social environment we live in, it is hard to focus on being healthy at any size but we should strive towards helping our children focus on health — both physical and mental — rather than weight or shape.”

Herein lies the fundamental problem: shape is much easier (and quicker) to judge than overall health. Even medical science makes it difficult to ignore shape. A recent study, for instance, found that obesity can never co-exist with adequate health. In other words, weight matters. But it’s incorrect and dangerous to assume that weight and shape are the only markers for personal health, where in reality, they can only disprove obesity. People who focus solely on weight ignore the myriad risks for high cholesterol, anemia, low iron levels, diabetes, chronic conditions, allergies, and a raft of invisible diseases and disorders for which body weight can’t reliably predict.

Among the researchers’ other findings:

  • Just over a quarter of girls (27 percent) and just under a quarter of boys (23 percent) had exercised to lose weight in the previous three months
  • Binge-eating occurred roughly equally among boys (5 percent) and girls (4.6 percent), and correlated with a 50 percent increase in being overweight and a 1.5-fold increase in being obese by age 15
  • Laxative use and making oneself sick to lose weight were low among both boys (0.16 percent) and girls (0.23 percent)

Dr. Micali stressed the role of an adequate support system in breaking these destructive habits but more so in promoting healthy body images. She referred to the numerous programs schools have started implementing to educate boys and girls on eating disorders, along with parents to identify the disorders in their own children.

“There are now good programs to prevent eating disorders that have been developed worldwide to use in schools, but we have more work to do as health care professionals in making sure most young people have access to these,” she said. “We are far from being able to identify boys and girls who have unhealthy weight control behaviors and binge-eating early, but this is crucial to prevent full-blown eating disorders and other negative social and emotional problems.”