Is the Fight Against Childhood Obesity Causing Eating Disorders?

eating disorders on the rise
Eating disorders among kids are on the rise.

According to a new report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, eating disorders among children in the U.S. have risen steadily over the last few decades.  Currently, it is estimated that 0.5 percent of adolescent girls suffer from anorexia while 1 to 2 percent have bulimia.  And while the number of boys who suffer from eating disorders is less than girls, that number appears to be on the rise as well.

Interestingly, this increase in the number children with eating disorders has occurred at the exact same time that childhood obesity rates have exploded.  While eating disorders get some press, childhood obesity gets a lot more.

Never before have we been so focused on our kids’ weight than we are right now.  From First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to schools sending home fat notes to parents, our children’s weight has become a national topic of conversation.

Could there be a connection?

Study author Dr. David Rosen, a professor of pediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry at University of Michigan, believes there may be.  He says that many of his young patients trace the beginnings of their disordered eating to being told by a physician to lose a few pounds.

Of course, there are many factors that can contribute to a child developing an eating disorder – from genetics to media influence to family dynamics.  But as we pay more attention to how much our kids weigh, it makes sense that they are going to be paying more attention as well. And some kids – especially those who may be genetically vulnerable to developing an eating disorder – need to be handled very carefully.

According to Dr. Rosen, parents also need to be aware that eating disorders are not just for rich white girls anymore.

We are seeing a lot more eating disorders than we used to and we are seeing it in people we didn’t associate with eating disorders in the past — a lot of boys, little kids, people of color and those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  The stereotype is of an affluent white girl of a certain age. We wanted people to understand eating disorders are equal-opportunity disorders.

According to Dr. Rosen, eating disorders can be cured but early intervention is key.  In addition to watching for any changes in a child’s growth or appearance, parents should keep an eye out for kids who are very restrictive in what they eat, those who compulsively overexercise, make negative comments about their bodies, vomit frequently, use laxatives and diet pills or disappear after meals.

For more on the findings of this study, check out the December issue of Pediatrics.  To learn more about eating disorders, visit the National Institute of Mental Health.

Image: mahalie/Flickr

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