When many people think of eating disorders, they picture a teenage girl with low self-esteem and a desire to look like the models she sees in magazines and online. Sometimes, this stereotype is valid; however, eating disorders can affect people of all ages and genders and for reasons beyond peer and environmental pressures.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses that affect millions of people every year. They can have a mortality rate as high as 20 percent.
“Unfortunately, even preteens are at risk, especially when their parents discuss their own weight, make comments to children about their weight or encourage or allow children to diet,” he says. “Children who have been teased about weight or exhibit body dissatisfaction are also at greater risk.”
Experts agree and are seeing a rise in the number of tweens — even young children — at greater risk for an eating disorder.
In fact, NEDA reports the following shocking statistics:
- 42 percent of first- through third-grade girls want to be thinner
- Close to 25 percent of elementary school-aged girls diet regularly
- 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat
- 46 percent of 9- to 11-year-olds and 80 percent of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets
Because of the increasing pressure children are feeling to fit unhealthy societal “norms,” parents should understand common eating disorders and be able to recognize their warning signs:
Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Sufferers exhibit low calorie intake, an intense fear of certain foods and of gaining weight, a preoccupation with food and nutritional values, a distorted body image, self-esteem tied directly to body image and an inability to appreciate the seriousness of the illness.
Bulimia is characterized by binge eating with compensatory behavior — such as self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives and excessive exercise — in attempts to prevent weight gain. Physical signs of purging include a swollen face or calluses on the back of hands and withdrawal from friends and activities in order to maintain the binge-purge cycle.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
BED is characterized by binge eating without compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain. Sufferers exhibit a loss of control in their eating behaviors followed by feelings of intense shame, distress or guilt.
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
This eating disorder has recently gained attention and is usually diagnosed in younger children. ARFID is similar to anorexia in that the sufferer limits the amount or types of food they will consume. However, children with ARFID do not have concerns about their body image or weight gain.
While many children are picky eaters when they are young, kids with ARFID do not take in enough calories, resulting in below normal weight and stalled growth. They often exhibit strict avoidance of certain foods, low appetite, stomach pain and a deep fear of vomiting.
“It is important that parents understand that younger children can also have eating disorders and that it is imperative that they seek treatment for them if they notice warning signs,” says Dr. Hall.
“Parents can also help prevent potential eating disorders in children by being healthy role models,” he says. “Encourage healthful eating and physical activity and refrain from making comments about your own or others’ body weights and shapes. Instead, focus on all the good our bodies do for us and find value in attributes — intelligence, tenacity, kindness — that are unrelated to appearance.”