Eating disorders have typically been thought to occur in white, teenage girls who come from middle and upper class families. In recent years, however, that stereotype has been replaced. Eating disorders are occurring in younger and younger children. Hospitals are reporting that hospitalizations due to eating disorders in children under the age of twelve have more than doubled in recent years. Some estimates put the percentage of cases occurring in children under the age of ten at as much as ten percent. Alarmingly, cases have been reported in children as young as seven years old. Additionally, anorexia and bulimia are no longer diseases found only in girls. These diseases do not discriminate when it comes to age or sex. Young males are now among the latest victims and account for about 10% of all cases of eating disorders.
Experts point to several factors to explain the disturbing rate of increase in these diseases. One reason is that societal norms have changed. There has been an increasing importance placed on appearance and clothing. Preteen girls and boys are now experiencing social situations that were once reserved for teenagers. Children are being taught to be aware of their appearance at a younger age. Another factor that is closely tied to appearance is society’s attempt to educate people about childhood obesity. The constant warnings of the dangers of childhood obesity and the bombardment in the media of what is an “acceptable” look have led our youth to believe they must be skinny.
Both parents and pediatricians need to be cognizant of signs that a child may be headed down this path. An early diagnosis of an eating disorder is imperative to getting your child on a healthier road to eating. Early warning signs include a very limited intake of food and purging. Other indications include excessive tiredness, dry skin, a pale complexion, hair loss, and dehydration. An obsession with exercise to control weight is another indication there may be a problem. Research shows that children who suffer from eating disorders also tend to suffer from anxiety and show characteristics of perfectionism. As more and more cases occur in younger children, it is now being recommended that pediatricians screen for these early warning signs as part of a child’s annual physical.
When teaching children how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is essential to avoid some common mistakes. First and foremost, lead by example. Show your child how to eat healthy. Do not fixate on food or exercise in front of your child. In addition, instead of dictating that certain foods are unhealthy and should be off limits; stress the importance of enjoying these foods once in a while in a controlled portion. One of the hardest things to remember, and most importantly, do not use food as a reward.