Eating Disorders in Children: 7 Tips to Reduce the Risk

Described by Columbia University researchers as a “global problem that’s on the rise in many parts of the world,” eating disorders are not a uniquely “Western” problem that affect only Caucasian, adolescent or young adult women from high-income Western countries, according to a new study published in Current Psychiatry Reports.

Although not nearly as prevalent as obesity and overweight, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are on the rise among children and adolescents. A review in Pediatrics suggests that eating disorders affect more kids at progressively younger ages. A new study in Current Psychiatry Reports also notes an increase in prevalence of eating disorders among 15–19 year old girls.

Even more disturbing, a recent analysis found that between 1999-2000 and 2008-2009, there was a 72% increase in hospitalizations from eating disorders among children under the age of 12. Although the increase wasn’t as substantial, hospitalizations for 12- to 19-year-olds for eating disorders rose by 6% during the same time period. Although these numbers certainly raise a red flag, eating disorders expert Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CEDRD says it’s unclear whether the upward trend is due to better recognition and assessment of or an actual increase in cases of eating disorders.

Described by the National Institutes of Mental Health as illnesses that cause serious disturbances to the everyday diet—for example, eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating—eating disorders are caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. And they can take a severe toll on both physical and mental health, and also affect the family dynamic and relationships. At worst, eating disorders can increase death risk in those afflicted.

According to Setnick, author of The Eating Disorders Clinical Pocket Guide, 2nd Edition, while there is no known method proven to prevent eating disorders, parents can take the following 7 steps* to reduce some of the factors that can predispose kids to develop an eating disorders:

1.       Don’t make disparaging comments on weight, body shapes, or food. Teach children that bullying is unacceptable and if bullied to report it to an adult.

2.       Don’t keep a scale at home and only have children weighed at medical check-ups.

3.       Guide children to follow their own body’s signals for when, what, and how much to eat. Teach them to say “No, thanks” to food that is offered when they’re not hungry. Do not coerce or bribe children to eat. If you are genuinely worried that a child is not eating enough, consult a doctor or a registered dietitian.

4.       When a child or teen announces a decision to change their eating, investigate further. Listen for any ulterior motive that is not food-related, such as “So I’ll have more friends,” or “So I’ll do better in school.”

5.       When children are feeling down or disappointed, never suggest dieting or weight loss as a solution to problems. Instead, encourage healthy methods of expression, such as talking, writing or art.

6.       Alert your child’s pediatrician if you have had an eating disorder so that he or she will be alert for any signs exhibited by your child.

7.      Seek professional help for any child or teen struggling with weight or eating, and for yourself if you know you need to make changes in order to be a healthy role model.

For more information on the prevention or treatment of eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorder Association, Something Fishy, and the Eating Disorders and Education Network.

*Adapted with permission from The Eating Disorders Clinical Pocket Guide, 2nd Edition.

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Image of mother and children preparing a meal together via shutterstock.

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