The Skinny Celebrity: Role Model Gone Wrong?

Patient Expert

Have you ever heard of Gwyneth Paltrow?

She's a veteran actor, a 37-year-old Academy Award-winning performer once engaged to Brad Pitt - you've heard of him, right? She's also the celebrity "face" of Estée Lauder's Pleasures perfume.

Her mom is Blythe Danner, a name that might be more familiar to older readers.

Suffice it to say, she's a celebrity. Someone whose picture appears regularly in magazines; who's interviewed on entertainment talk shows. A woman whose face and body are familiar to millions of people in America - including hordes of young women, who might be tempted to emulate the look of this woman described by (THE online place to read about movie stars) as "A tall, wafer thin, delicate beauty""

Wafer-thin, eh? Indeed, Paltrow has always been known for her slim (some might say skinny) physique, one she works hard to maintain via diet and exercise.

For several years, she followed a strict macrobiotic diet, one focusing on whole grains, vegetables, and beans, and avoiding processed or refined foods, red meat, and dairy. She follows a less-strict version of that diet now, but still consumes very little dairy.

She also exercises heavily six days a week. Her 2-hour workout includes a cardio dance routine, and further exercises in a heated room - which encourages sweating, and increases the number of calories she burns.

Paltrow sounds ultra-healthy, doesn't she? She "eats right," exercises"

Then how come she's been diagnosed with osteopenia, well before her 40th birthday?

Paltrow suffered a severe leg fracture several years ago, one requiring surgery. Her surgeon suggested she have a DEXA scan, and sure enough, her T-scores were low enough to put her in osteopenia.

Further testing revealed her vitamin D levels were among the lowest her doctor had ever seen.

A low-calorie, dairy-free diet. Tons of exercise. A probable lack of sunlight, given her vitamin D levels. Is it any reason this young woman is heading for osteoporosis?

Is bone loss the price celebrities are willing to pay for the "ultimate" body shape?

Teens, tweens, and even younger girls idolize celebrities: models, movie stars, TV actresses" Sure, their designer clothes look great. But what about the long-term health damage happening underneath those chic dresses and tight jeans?

These most-admired "role models" may be giving young girls a dangerous message: skinnier is better. And it's a hard message to fight, in today's media-driven culture.

How can you, as a mom, help your daughter understand the price of excessive dieting and exercise?

First, be aware of the problem. Sadly, even high school girls can develop osteoporosis. And their risk factors aren't smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, or alcohol abuse, as they are with older women.

Far from it. Osteoporosis in young women can be the result of fitness and dieting taken to an extreme. Losing too much weight causes a woman's body to lower its estrogen production. This in turn can wreak havoc with the menstrual cycle, making periods irregular, or stopping them completely - which lowers the level of circulating estrogen in the body even more.

Estrogen helps keep bones strong. Its absence encourages bones to become thin and brittle. Lack of estrogen is the chief reason women experience such a precipitous drop in bone density during the first few years after menopause.

If your daughter "eats like a bird" and exercises strenuously, she may be dangerously thin - like Paltrow, who's 5' 9", and regularly weighed around 112 pounds, prior to gaining weight for a new movie role last year.

You know how tall your daughter is; ask her how much she weighs. If she's dieting, ask her what her weight goal is. Or ask her if she has a particular body type in mind - say, Gwyneth's.

If she answers "the skinnier the better," or "size 2," or anything that sets off alarm bells in your head, tell her broken bones are a huge price to pay for style. Describe osteoporosis to her: the bent back, broken hip, painful vertebral fractures. And let her know this isn't an old lady's disease: it could easily be hers, at the age of 25.

It could be Gwyneth's, too, if she doesn't change her lifestyle. And for someone as famous as Paltrow, that would be a shame: not just for her, but for the fans who admire her - and try to emulate her.