Once considered a risk only for wealthy, high-achieving teenage girls, eating disorders such as anorexia (and, more rarely, bulimia) are becoming increasingly common among children, even little boys.
"In the last two years, we've actually had to add a treatment track to deal with kids ages 9 to 11," says Margaret Kelley, clinical nurse manager for the eating disorders treatment program at The Children's Hospital in Denver. "And we're getting many more boys. We used to see one or two a year at most, but we've almost always got one or two boys in the program now."
The average age for the onset of anorexia used to be 13 to 17. Now it's 9 to 12, and children as young as 7 have been diagnosed, says Abigail Natenshon, a psychotherapist and author of "When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder."
No one knows how many preteens are affected today, though 5% of adolescents are affected. What is known is that at least 10% of adult anorexics first showed clear symptoms of the condition before they were 10 years old -- and kids growing up today may be even more vulnerable.
More than 60% of elementary and middle school teachers reported that eating disorders are a problem in their schools, according to a study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
The vast majority of kids in this country don't have an eating disorder and will probably never develop one. But experts are concerned about the rise in nearly epidemic proportions of "disordered eating" -- a pattern of dieting or calorie restriction that's unhealthy and a known trigger for eating disorders. Some troubling statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association:
-- 42% of kids in first through third grades wish they were thinner
-- 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of becoming fat
-- 51% of 9- and 10-year-old girls say they feel better about themselves when they are on a diet
Numbers like these are red flags for experts. And perhaps the most worrisome news is that it's not just overweight kids who are restricting calories.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, significant numbers of normal-weight and underweight kids are also dieting: 16% of girls ages 8 to 11, and 19% of girls ages 12 to 15. The numbers are slightly lower for boys, though these, too, are rising.