In the US, where 17 percent of children aged 2 – 19 are overweight (according to statistics from the Center for Disease and Control) and people talk of an epidemic of obesity, more and more young children are being diagnosed with eating disorders. A similar trend is occurring in the UK: The Guardian reports that, out of 2000 children hospitalized for eating disorders in the past three years, about 600 — almost a third — were under the age of 13, with 197 aged between five and nine years old. It’s further evidence that eating disorders are no longer a disease striking teenage- and college-age white women, but affect younger children as well as males and people of color.
A 2010 report in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that hospitalizations for eating disorders in prepubertal children younger than 12 increased 119 percent between 1999 and 2006. The report’s author, Dr. David Rosen, a professor of pediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry at University of Michigan, also noted that the “profile of eating disorders” has significantly changed, says CBS:
“The stereotype is these disorders affect teen girls from wealthy backgrounds. We are learning these are equal opportunity disorders. They affect boys, people of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Health care providers need to suspect these disorders in patients where in they would not have in the past.”
Males now represent 10 percent of the eating disorder population, according to the report, which also warned that young athletes of both genders, including gymnasts, wrestlers and dancers, are at risk for “partial-syndrome eating disorders,” where they display some, but not all, of the behaviors.
About 2.7 percent of 13 to 18 years-olds in the US have eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Depending on the definition used, the prevalence of eating disorders is estimated at 0.8 to 14 percent. The prevalence of anorexia is understood to be about 0.5 percent and that of bulimia, 2 to 4 percent, says Dr. Rosen on Medscape.
The cause of eating disorders remains unknown, with more research being carried out about biological factors; family dynamics are no longer thought to provide the full answer, as was once the case. The influence of culture and societal pressures that equate being thin and looking good with moral worth and success do play some part. A child who sees their parents worrying about their weight and diet can internalize similar concerns, instead of learning to accept their bodies and to exercise for health and fitness, not solely to lose weight.
With all this said, eating disorders remain a serious health issue for women. Los Angeles Times reports that as much as a third of female college athletes in the US have an eating disorder. Female college athletes who leave their sports, for health and other reasons, especially face challenges, after years of training and working out at intense levels. Craig Johnson, chief clinical officer of Eating Recovery Center in Denver, notes that the NCAA follows athletes who are competing, but “once the athletes have moved out of their oversight, they don’t really have the resources to follow them” — and the transition process is precisely when now-former athletes need support, especially as they no longer have their team members and coaches to rely on.
Certainly it’s ironic to see an increase in eating disorders among children, even as more and more Americans struggle with obesity. How can we nurture healthy eating and healthy lifestyles in children and teach about acceptance of one’s body?
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