School Daze: Eating Disorders Can Start Early

Children who are picky eaters may be showing early signs of eating disorders, new research suggests. It’s a wake-up call for parents who might want to look for other signs of psychological issues, like anxiety and depression.

Under-recognized pattern

An eating disorder is defined as a significant disruption in everyday diet – ranging from eating too little to severe overeating, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Many factors lead to an eating disorder, including genetics, social factors (such as bullying), and psychological problems (such as anxiety and depression). An eating disorder is a form of addiction, which increases risk for substance abuse and other addictions.

Most people believe teens and young adults are at greatest risk for eating disorders, but this study found that the pattern starts much earlier – in elementary school.

Eight-year-olds with an eating disorder, “fat” body image

A group of Canadian researchers studied 215 children ages 8-12 – all of whom displayed various difficulties such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and other mood disorders. Of these kids, 95 percent were considered restrictive eaters – meaning they barely ate anything, and 69 percent revealed they were afraid of putting on weight; 47 percent described themselves as fat—an early sign of negative body image.

Signs of bulimia requiring hospitalization

Equally disturbing, 16 percent of these children made themselves vomit occasionally; 13 percent showed signs of bulimia (binge eating, then vomiting). About half had been either hospitalized or underwent outpatient treatment for an eating disorder.

For many kids, teasing and bullying were triggers – either instilling or reinforcing a negative body image. Nearly one-quarter of those studied (22.7 percent) reported they were mocked or insulted about their appearance, which the subjects said led to their eating disorders.

Boys were just as prone to eating disorders – but their pattern was different. Boys were more inclined to isolate themselves for long periods of time. For some boys, there were signs of anorexia or bulimia. Others tended to get extreme about exercise, focused on bulking up to become more muscular, sometimes using steroids.

For the boys, the pattern went virtually unnoticed, because eating disorders typically are associated with girls.

Parents must look for early signs

It’s imperative for parents to pay attention to these early signs of eating disorders, as the problem can spiral out of control — with kids getting increasingly less nutrition during a critical time in their physical and psychological growth.