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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A weight loss trend that involves eating cotton balls has health officials issuing warnings for parents.
It seems Americans are obsessed with losing weight or wearing a smaller size, and images from the media reinforce a false perception of beauty.
"I think, especially young girls, don't realize that those models are airbrushed," said Amy Garlove, a pediatrician at Norton Healthcare. "There's a lot of Photoshopping that goes into that."
Young girls are trying to measure up to the glamorous women they see in magazines and on TV. Many times these models often go to extremes to stay thin.
It's an unobtainable -- and dangerous -- goal, and Garlove says social media and websites can make things worse.
"Now in this day and age, we have the added insult, essentially, of the Internet, and so girls can get these ideas from other girls," Garlove said.
Some of those ideas are so disturbing, they're hard to comprehend. There are now reported cases of girls so desperate to lose weight that they swallow cotton balls to curb their appetites.
It's a trend therapists like Dr. Eli Karam in Louisville have begun seeing in young patients.
"This trend really got started by YouTube clips being made of other girls showing how to do this, how to restrict," said Dr. Karam.
The Internet is peppered with dozens of videos demonstrating how to eat cotton balls -- and some even make a game of out of coming up with creative ways to eat the cotton, including dipping them in juice "and then they swallow them with the hopes that it will fill up their stomachs so they will not be hungry."
Marsha Hilgeford, a registered dietitian, says the idea behind the trend is that "cotton would absorb and fill the space so there wouldn't be any emptiness, they would feel a fullness."
In fact, cotton balls are not very absorbent. If one is dipped in a container of yogurt, for example, the yogurt just sticks to it and continues to collect food. It does the same thing in the intestinal tract.
"It's not going to absorb anything," Garlove said. "It may take up space in the stomach for awhile, but it's certainly not going to be anything that is going to keep the patient from still needing the calories and the nutrients that your body has to have to survive and to thrive."
There are a number of dangers associated with ingesting cotton balls -- starting with the potential of choking. The danger grows as the cotton works its way through your body.
If the cotton ball does reach the stomach, it can cause sharp pains for the person who ingested it.
Cotton balls can also form blockages in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to surgery or even death.
"You might as well soak your T-shirt in grape juice and eat it," said Hilgeford.
To make matters worse, there are chemicals in cotton balls that could be harmful.
"Most girls, when they're doing that (eating cotton balls) aren't thinking about that," said Karam. "They're just thinking about the short term -- what will help me, what will make me feel better about myself, what will help me stop eating," said Karam.
Karam says young girls may try the cotton ball diet as a to gain a sense of control in what can be chaotic lives.
It's important for parents to pay attention to eating habits at home. Symptoms to watch for include: anxiety around food, attitude change, and stomach issues.
"Whereas an adult might think this is a very high-risk behavior, you can actually find the reverse, where a young girl could receive support from her peers for doing this.
We often turn to the Internet for information, but sometimes the wrong information can be dangerous. Many of the images seen by impressionable young minds do not reflect reality, and the pressure for a perfect body takes a toll on young women.
"They're trying to keep up with this unattainable goal of being this perfect body type, which doesn't exist because it's all done on computers," Garlove said.
It's the ugly side of the beauty industry.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, it's important to get help.