Eating Disorders Growing Among Children Younger than 12

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According to the American Psychiatric Association, as many as one in every 100 females has an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Most are teens that follow very strict diets and have an extreme preoccupation with being overweight. Shockingly, however, a new report published in the journal Pediatrics finds that the incidence of eating disorders among young children under 12 is on the rise.

Profile for Eating Disorders Also Changing

Report author Dr. David Rosen, a professor of pediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry at the University of Michigan conducted an analysis of more than 200 studies for an analysis called "Clinical Report – Identification and Management of Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents." Overall, the team found that about 0.5% of adolescent girls in the United States have anorexia nervosa and between 1 and 2 percent meet diagnostic criteria for bulimia nervosa.

While the majority of cases occur between the ages of 12 and 25, hospitalizations for complications related to eating disorders increased by 119% between 1999 and 2006 for children under the age of 12. Dr. David Rosen also notes that the profile for eating disorders is also changing. In a disease historically dominated by white females, boys and minority adolescents are now increasingly being diagnosed.

Read: Cause of Anorexia Linked to Brain Circuitry

Young athletes are also at risk, particularly for what is called a “partial syndrome eating disorder” where the patient displays some of the characteristic behaviors, but not all. These include athletes such as gymnasts, wrestlers, and dancers that strive to meet a certain low weight in order to compete.

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Some children with eating disorders may appear of normal weight (particularly those with bulimia), but are malnourished and may have organ damage or stunted growth. Changes in electrolyte balance can cause heart attack or sudden death.

The researchers aren’t sure if the increase reveals an actual rise in the incidence of eating disorders among young people or an increase in awareness and therefore more diagnoses. Pediatricians are worried that an obsession with controlling food intake in light of the current obesity epidemic may lead to the inappropriate response to eating.

Read: Family Involvement in Anorexia Treatment More Beneficial

Marisa Sherry, a nutritionist specializing in eating disorders says that parents are a vital component of curbing the trend. “The key is to talk about body acceptance and healthy eating rather than numbers on a scale,” she said. Dr. Rosen agrees, saying “As physicians, we need to make sure our conversations are not inadvertently hurtful or impact their self-esteem.”

Parents and pediatricians should be on the lookout for warning signs of eating disorders. Those with anorexia tend to develop unusual habits such as voiding food and meals, being very particular or restrictive about the types of foods they eat, and obsessively weighing food or counting calories. Bulimic patients tend to eat a large amount of food in a single episode and then immediately make themselves vomit, or they may use laxatives or diuretics to rid themselves of the pounds.

“The good news,” Dr. Rosen says, is that “with treatment and maturity, many kids move beyond the eating disorder. The majority of children and adolescents get all better.”

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