Cases of eating disorders among children and teens in the United States are on the rise.
According to a report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, hospitalization of children and teens with eating disorders rose 119 percent from 1999 to 2006. Also on the rise, a societal emphasis on dieting and weight loss, particularly in suburban settings and among children as young as 12.
The number of cases of eating disorders in young males has also increased, according to the report, as well as the incidence of eating disorders among minority communities in the U.S.
With so much focus today on preventing and fighting obesity, we might make the mistake of creating an unhealthy obsession in the minds of our children about thinness, dieting and exercise.
Dr. David Rosen, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, “When counseling families on preventing obesity, care needs to be taken not to inadvertently enable excessive dieting, compulsive exercise, or other potentially unhealthy weight management strategies.”
The three most prevalent eating disorders are:
- Anorexia – a disorder where an individual refuses to eat adequate calories because they fear becoming fat, or they erroneously see themselves as being overweight when they are actually quite thin. Most people suffering from anorexia refuse to exist at even a minimally healthy weight and strive for deadly numbers on the scale. They are highly self-critical and have anxiety over not being “perfect.” About 1 out of every ten cases of anorexia are fatal.
- Bulimia – a disorder where an individual eats large quantities of food at one time (referred to as a binge), and then induces vomiting or uses laxatives to purge. Bulimic children feel out of control while eating, and afterward, feel disgusted, or even fearful, of what they’ve consumed, leading them to purge. It is estimated that one in every 25 women will struggle with bulimia at some point in their lives.
- Binge eating – a disorder where a child eats large, out of control amounts of food, sometimes to the point of pain or discomfort, but does not purge. Often, binge eaters are overweight, and depressed about their overeating. They struggle to handle and interpret their emotions and times of high stress or anxiety may cause compulsive binging.
In most cases, eating disorders emerge in early adulthood, but over the last ten years, many cases have been reported in children and teens.
Girls are more susceptible, given that society places more emphasis on a young woman’s appearance and weight. It is estimated, however, that 5-10 percent of cases of anorexia and bulimia occur in males and up to 35 percent of binge eaters are males.
What causes an eating disorder in a child or teen?
Doctors haven’t pinpointed a specific cause of eating disorders. It is likely that the answer isn’t simple. A combination of biological, personal and societal influences put children at risk for developing such disorders.
Many children who develop one suffer from poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, panic about becoming fat and feelings of hopelessness. These children respond to distress by developing unhealthy obsessions and relationships with food.
Eating disorders are serious and need to be treated efficiently and aggressively by licensed therapists who will help the entire family. If left untreated, a child with an eating disorder could suffer damage to their major organs, bones and teeth, digestive system and heart, as well as other parts of the body. Eating disorders are often fatal.
What are the signs to look out for in children and teens?
These are some of the signs that, if observed consistently and increasingly, might indicate your child is creating an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Meal time is a battle, and eating a meal is not a simple endeavor with your child.
- Your child is an extremely picky eater, sometimes to the point of creating strange rituals with food, such as cutting each item into a certain number of bites and eating them in an obsessive order.
- Unrealistic view of their bodies, like feeling they are overweight when they are actually very thin.
- Obsessive calorie counting and restriction of calories. Asking if what they’re eating will make them gain weight.
- Excessive exercise.
- Hiding or hoarding food in secret places.
- A radical change in temperament. For example, going from a mild, good-natured teen to one who acts out in explosive ways and is sullen.
- Stops menstruating.
- Changes in his/her physical body, including changes in weight.
- Problems with teeth and gums due to malnutrition and/or possible purging.
- Unusual bathroom habits, such as spending time in the bathroom right after meal times or running water to cover up the sound of purging.
- Compulsive overeating.
- Mood swings.
- An unusual interest in or obsession with food.
- Perfectionism or being highly self-critical.
- Increasing obsession with physical appearance.
What can you do to prevent eating disorders in children and teens?
- Limit, but don’t totally ban, exposure to objectifying media.
- Keep your attitude as a parent in check. When our young daughters see us acting out obsessions with and negativity toward our own weight, and are exposed to dieting, they learn to consider themselves and their bodies in a negative light.
- Build self-esteem and self-respect by creating a healthful, positive, supportive home environment for your children. Praise them for the things they do, instead of focusing on the way they look.
- Throw away the scale. Teens who weigh themselves often are more likely to have an unhealthy relationship with their size.
- Eat meals together as a family. Create a positive, supportive food environment in your home where everyone participates and shares in the experience of eating.
- If needed, treat your child’s depression and anxiety with the help of a professional before it turns into something life threatening.