When you picture a young person with an eating disorder, who do you picture? “Caucasian, well-off females” are a common presumption, according to the authors of a new report in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal, Pediatrics. People of color, boys, and kids of younger and younger ages are also affected, says the study, and the prevalence of eating disorders in these groups (as well as across all groups in general) is on a steady rise. In a new set of statistics, eating disorders (specifically anorexia and bulimia) in kids under the age of 12 rose 119% over the past 9 years. Eating disorders on the whole rose 15%.
It’s often difficult to recognize eating disorders in kids who are particularly young. Many are thin and “boyish” by nature, so weight loss is not a visible symptom. However, they may appear to have stunted growth, and in girls, under-eating may delay the onset of menstruation. Likewise, body image issues and obsession with appearance aren’t as common: it may be instead an issue of compulsion or control. The study’s authors recommend that primary care physicians include discussions of food, eating habits, and lifestyle into children’s yearly checkup as a screening tool. Physicians can then inform parents of concerns they have, or even refer the child to a specialist, whether that be a physician who focuses on childhood eating disorders, or a counselor or therapist trained in healing and establishing health habits.
On a particularly interesting note in the AAP study is the idea that anti-obesity campaigns, though positive in intention, may be worsening the landscape for kids who are susceptible to the thought and behavioral patterns behind eating disorders. An anti-obesity approach may enable unhealthy dieting and compulsive exercise, while breaking down self-esteem by tying self-worth to weight. Instead, weight-related campaigns should emphasize “healthy eating” (not just “anti-obesity”), which is a relevant and healthy goal for those both under- and over-weight.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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