The Daily Telegraph recently reported an alarming fact: children as young as five are treated for eating disorders in British hospitals. In fact, the number of British five- to nine-year-old’s treated for eating disorders in have doubled in the past three years. Worse, still, is that these numbers are likely much higher than reported; some hospitals refused requests for data and others excluded outpatient treatment.
Similar reports by doctors, psychologists and other eating disorder experts on young children in the United States echo statistics about their British counterparts. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of children under 12-years-old that were treated for eating disorders between more than doubled between 1999 and 2006.
So what is causing this dramatic rise in eating disorders among elementary school-aged children?
While it’s not entirely clear what causes eating disorders, health professionals believe (PDF) it’s due to a number of biological, behavioral, emotional and social factors.
Western culture’s narrow beauty ideal, that glorifies thin and stigmatizes fat, is an often cited reason. But it’s not just popular media and culture that upholds this standard, though, it’s also the very institution that works to treat eating disorders: the health-care system.
Dr. Ken Weiner, the founder of five eating disorder treatment centers, recently told Marie Claire that his patients are “the casualties of the war on obesity”. Moreover, as Marie Claire writer Sophie Moura puts it,
Michelle Obama’s crusade against childhood obesity and the addition of BMIs to report cards in some public schools make eating-disorder experts shudder. They believe the anti-fat campaign will trigger a whole new health crisis for the 11 million Americans who are anorexic or bulimic.
Indeed, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) executive director, Laura Discipio, LCSW, has expressed concern over obesity prevention programs, that,
Use strategies that have never proven to prevent obesity, such as identifying who is overweight or obese, testing body fat and BMIs, encouraging calorie reduction, and encouraging reduced consumption of fats and carbohydrates. Telling a child to lose weight when they are in a periods of growth and development is neither logical nor healthy. Interventions that draw attention to being overweight can accidentally cause more obesity. The more a person is targeted as overweight or obese, the more he or she may feel ashamed of his or her body. This can cause body dissatisfaction, which is another predictor of obesity and eating disorders.
If weight loss is promoted over wellness, then perhaps it is not surprising that some children will take extreme measures to get thin.