British teenagers of both sexes are increasingly fixated with their weight as a combination of low self-esteem and concern about image drives them into unnecessary dieting, a study said yesterday.

British teenagers of both sexes are increasingly fixated with their weight as a combination of low self-esteem and concern about image drives them into unnecessary dieting, a study said yesterday.

The survey, which sought the opinions of nearly 37,000 British school children aged from 10 to 15 on health matters, found that 60 per cent of girls aged between 14 and 15 believe they are fat and need to lose weight.

Researchers at the Schools Health Education Unit in Exeter found that a youth culture increasingly focused on appearance is driving some female pupils to go without food for the entire school day.

The report found that 18 per cent of 14 to 15-year-old girls skip breakfast and 15 per cent miss lunch, while 4.5 per cent miss both meals, despite the fact that fewer than one in eight females of that age are clinically overweight.

Dr David Regis, research manager for the project, said: "We can relate this desire to low self-esteem and general anxiety about appearance. It's certain that most of these young women do not need to lose weight."

A rising proportion of boys were also found to be worried about their weight, with 28 per cent saying they would like to lose a few pounds to conform with their "ideal" shape.

Dr Regis said teenagers were more aware of how to eat healthily by choosing fresh fruit and vegetables, but he called for greater efforts in the media to make youngsters comfortable with their bodies.

Health campaigners, who called the findings "disappointing", said schools needed to do more to encourage youngsters to be sceptical about the images presented to them by the outside world. Steve Bloomfield, spokesman for the Eating Disorders Association, said: "It is disappointing that the figures for teenagers who consider themselves overweight should be so high.

"Dieting is not a solution - it is much better to eat healthily and exercise. Children should be educated to make them question what they are presented with by the media rather than striving to conform."

The annual survey, now in its 14th year, reported a continuing decrease in the number of teenagers admitting to using drugs since figures peaked in 1995-1996. One in five now say they have tried cannabis.

But the study found high incidences of use of alcohol and tobacco, with 50 per cent of 14 and 15 year olds saying they had had a drink in the past week. More girls (28 per cent) said they smoked than boys (19 per cent).

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