The number of individuals diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating has gone up steadily over the last few decades and experts note a significant increase in the prevalence of these disorders among pre-teenagers. Historically, mental health professionals anticipated that the onset of anorexia occurred during the teen years of 13 to 17. Recent data indicates that this window is now 9 to 12 years old with children as young as 7 years old exhibiting anorexic behavior.
Opinions vary as to the reasons for the increase in eating disordered behavior in this age group, but the dangers of pre-teens developing an eating disorder that goes unnoticed, or which is not treated early, are compounded by the unique developmental vulnerabilities of this population. Because children naturally have less body fat, they are more likely to contract illnesses; when they do they tend to become sicker than adults and adolescents.
Additionally, young children still have years of brain and body development before them, which can be adversely affected in cases of severe eating disordered behavior. In the most extreme situations, the growth potential of young children with eating disorders can be permanently limited. These individuals can also suffer irreversible damage to their internal organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys.
Because of the potentially lethal implications of eating disorders for all sufferers and the added danger for young children, mental health professionals strongly advise parents and guardians to be on the lookout for early warning signs of eating disordered behavior. If a child begins to avoid or cut out certain food groups such as carbs, this is a cause for serious concern.
No matter what the reason the child provides for this change in eating habits—such as a sudden desire to become vegetarian due to a professed love of animals—it is essential to remain mindful that marked changes in behavior often refer to underlying emotional issues. Concern over body image or expressions such as “I feel fat,” are clearly indicators that must not be ignored.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association over eighty percent of 10-year-olds express fear of becoming fat and more than half of those girls aged 9 and 10 claim to have a more positive opinion of themselves when they are dieting. These statistics should serve as a clarion call to educators, parents, guardians and mental health professionals to be on the lookout for any indicators of eating disordered behavior in the very young. Early detection, diagnosis and treatment are essential for their recovery and can help to ensure the healthful future development of both body and mind.