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September 20th, 2012

Childhood Eating Disorders on the Rise


More than 25 million people in the United States — around 1 in 13 — suffer from an eating disorder. While people of all ages are affected, hospitalizations among children 12 and younger have more than doubled over the last decade, according to a study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Eating disorders can develop when a person develops a distorted relationship with food and weight. All eating disorders can have negative health effects, thought Anorexia is the most dangerous, with roughly 10 percent of diagnosed cases being fatal.

Researchers don’t have a clear picture of why the number of kids with eating disorders is on the rise, but Dina Zeckhausen of the Eating Disorder Information Network says increased concern about obesity can make kids anxious about their weight.  She adds that putting overweight kids on diets can trigger an obsession with food that can lead into an eating disorder. Better options include increased activity and entire families working together to build healthier eating habits.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating. While people of both genders struggle with eating disorders, girls suffer at much higher rates than boys.

Eating disorders cause extreme emotional distress and unhealthy perceptions regarding food, eating and health.

Strong anti-obesity ad campaigns like this one from can make kids anxious about their self image.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating are the disorders that are most often developed, and are all potentially life-threatening. Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and extreme weight loss, while bulimia involves binging (over-eating) and self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives.

Symptoms of an eating disorder include:

  • Weight loss, especially sudden or extreme
  • Restricting food intake while claiming to eat “healthy”
  • Avoiding situations involving food
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals
  • Sadness or depression, often with social withdrawal
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss

Parents hiding food can lead to obsessive eating

In an interview with CNN, a young woman going by the pseudonym Sandy Smith spoke about being a rare child suffering from an eating disorder. “I think there was a mixture of … intentionally restricting my food and then going to try to find the food my parents were hiding,” she explains. “Even in childhood, it became sort of obsessive.”

Although Sandy speaks out about her experiences as a child, she still struggles with her disorder today. She advises children to seek help, saying, “There are people out there, even if they aren’t in [your] direct surroundings, who are filled with compassion and want to help.”

Many 10-year-old girls on diets

The Keep It Real campaign conducted a study that found 80 percent of all 10-year-old girls have already dieted at least once in their lives.

Children who are experiencing troubles such as bullying, abuse or a divorce sometimes seek to find a way to take control of some aspect of their lives and find that restricting their eating habits is the easiest way to do that.

Getting treatment early is key, as failure to get proper nutrition can affect a child’s growth and development for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Wendy Lebolt, a coach and physiologist who recently addressed the topic in a column onSoccerwire, an online newsletter and community for soccer parents, writes that many kids with eating disorders appear healthy and high-achieving.

Lauren, a young friend of Dr. Lebolt, was an athletic teenager who worked part-time three to four days per week while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Now on the road to recovery from an eating disorder, she has this advice: “Please, if you know of someone who has an eating disorder, encourage them to get help. Don’t sit back and wait.  It is an illness and nothing to be ashamed of, and you could save his/her life.”

–Compiled by Ja’anai Delaney for NewsHour Extra

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