Eating Disorders in Kids on the Rise

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The number of children younger than 12 entering the hospital for eating disorders increased 119 percent between 1999 and 2006, according to a new report suggesting eating disorders for this age group are on the rise. 

In fact, the report reveals eating disorders now account for more than 4 percent of all childhood hospitalizations.

The new report summarizes data from 200 recent research studies that examined eating disorders. It is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and suggests that pediatricians screen for eating disorders as part of annual checkups or during pre-participation sports exams.

If an eating disorder is suspected, the report suggests a more thorough history and physical exam should be ordered. The pediatrician should also consider referring the child to a psychologist for a more thorough psychological assessment.

Since eating disorders will impact a child’s entire health, the report recommends that pediatricians should monitor patients for medical or nutritional problems, and ensure patients receive appropriate treatment such as medical care, mental-health treatment and nutritional intervention.

"Pediatricians are encouraged to advocate for legislation and policies that ensure appropriate services for patients with eating disorders, including medical care, nutritional intervention, mental-health treatment and care co-ordination," conclude report author Dr. David Rosen of the University of Michigan and his coauthors.

It is estimated that 0.5 percent of adolescent girls in the United States have anorexia nervosa, and 1 percent to 2 percent meet criteria for bulimia nervosa.

There is also an increasing recognition of eating disorders in males, which now represent up to 10 percent of all cases of eating disorders, as well as in children of younger ages.

While gender, body type, and weight can be indicators of an eating disorder, it is becoming more common for both boys and overweight children to succumb to an eating disorder. Therefore, when evaluating patients, the report urges that pediatricians should not only track weight and height, but body mass index (BMI), too. In girls, the report urges doctors to track menstrual cycles, and to be specific about questioning diet, eating patterns, and body image.

People with anorexia have a distorted body image that causes them to see themselves as overweight even when they're dangerously thin. The may refuse to eat, and exercise compulsively.

Physical problems associated with anorexia nervosa include damage to the heart and other vital organs, low blood pressure, slowed heartbeat, constipation, abdominal pain, loss of muscle mass, hair loss, sensitivity to the cold, and fine body hair growth.

Individuals with bulimia eat to excess and then purge their bodies of the food and calories by using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics, vomiting and/ or exercising. Health complications associated with bulimia nervosa include damage to the heart, kidneys, reproductive system, intestinal tract, esophagus, teeth, and mouth.

People with eating disorders often use their control over food in an attempt to compensate for overwhelming feelings and emotions. Eating disorders are also often intractely tied into a person's own body image and have been previously linked to higher rates of self-harm.

Eating disorders are treated most commonly through psychotherapy, and a full recovery is possible for most people who experience an eating disorder.

The new report appears in the most recent issue of the journal Pediatrics.