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Childhood eating disorders are more common than previously thought

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Eating disorders have increased in young children, a new study has found.

Researchers say that anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating are as much as 14 times higher in adolescents than previously believed.

The various disorders were found to equally affect boys and girls until puberty, after which nearly all disorders were more common in teenage girls.

The team, from San Diego State University in California, says it’s important for parents and physicians to learn to spot red flags as early as possible to prevent devastating consequences.

A new study has found that about 1.4 percent of children have a diagnosed eating disorder, which is as much as 14 times higher than previously believed (file image)

Past research has placed the prevalence rates of all eating disorders among children between ages and 15 around 0.1 percent.

However, these studies often use criteria from the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders rather than report on the prevalence of specific eating disorders.

For the new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, the team looked at more than 4,500 nine- and 10-year olds who took part in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study in 2016 and 2017.

The ABCD study is a federally-run study that looks at long-term brain development and child health in the US.

Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and other disorders, were determined using a parent or guardian.

Researchers found that 1.4 percent of all children had a diagnosed eating disorder – 14 times higher than previously believed – with no significant differences between girls and boys 

About 0.1 percent of the children suffered from anorexia, 0.6 percent suffered from binge-eating and 0.7 percent suffered from other specified disorders.

However, none of the children were found to be suffering from bulimia.

Between the ages of six and 12 is when children first begin to show symptoms of eating disorders.

A 2017 study from Newcastle University in the UK found that children with body image concerns tended to display some subtle symptoms at age nine.

By the time they reached 12 years old, they were in a much more serious condition making intervention incredibly complex.

Lead author Dr Aaron Blashill, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, believes the reason why early-onset eating disorders have become more prevalent among younger children is because they are more likely than adolescents to experience psychiatric comorbidity.

Comorbidity is the presence of one more psychiatric disorders.

A 1998 study from Columbia University looked at children between ages one and 10 and found that psychiatric comorbidity is significantly related to medical illness, which eating disorders are classified as.

The authors also suggested that sex differences in eating disorders may not emerge until later on in adolescence.

‘Past research with adolescents aged 13 to 18 years did not find sex differences in the prevalence of anorexia nervosa,’ said Dr Blashill.

‘However, differences emerged for bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and subthreshold anorexia nervosa, with higher prevalence among girls.’

According to Adolescent Growth, 5.4 percent of all children between ages 13 and 18 – about 2.2 million teenagers – suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating at some point.

However, only 1.5 percent of these teenagers are male.


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