Eating disorders in children 
rise steadily over decades

Eating disorders have risen steadily in children and teens over the last few decades, with some of the sharpest increases occurring in boys and minority youths, according to a new report.

In one startling statistic cited in the report, an analysis by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that hospitalisations for eating disorders jumped by 119 per cent between 1999 and 2006 for kids younger than 12.

At the same time as severe cases of anorexia and bulimia have risen, so too have “partial-syndrome” eating disorders – young people who have some, but not all, of the symptoms of an eating disorder. Athletes, including gymnasts and wrestlers, and performers, including dancers and models, may be particularly at risk, according to the report.

“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 colour and those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” said report author Dr. David Rosen, a professor of paediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry at University of Michigan. “The stereotype [patient] is of an affluent white girl of a certain age. We wanted people to understand eating disorders are equal-opportunity disorders.”

The report is published in the December issue of Pediatrics.

While an estimated 0.5 per cent of adolescent girls in the United States have anorexia and about 2 per cent have bulimia, experts estimate that between 0.8 per cent to 14 per cent of Americans generally have at least some of the physical and psychological symptoms of an eating disorder, according to the report.

Boys now represent about 5 to 10 per cent of those with eating disorders, although some research suggests that number may be even higher, said Lisa Lilenfeld, incoming president of the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy and Action in Washington, DC.

Most studies that have been focused on prevalence were based on patients in treatment centres, who tended to be white females, Ms Lilenfeld said.

“That does not represent all of those who are suffering,” she said. “It’s hard to say if eating disorders are on the rise in males, or if we’re just doing a better job of detecting it.”

Like other mental health problems and addictions, ranging from depression to anxiety disorder to alcoholism, family and twin studies have shown that eating disorders can run in families, indicating there’s a strong genetic component, Mr. Rosen said.

Parents and paediatricians should look for signs of eating disorders, including a child whose progress on growth charts suddenly changes, very restrictive eating, compulsive over-exercising, making concerning statements about body image, vomiting, disappearing after meals or use of laxatives and diet pills.

Eating disorders, especially anorexia, can have long-term consequences for health, including leading to early osteoporosis and death.

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