Why prevention is better than cure when dealing with eating disorders in children

Why prevention is better than cure when dealing with eating disorders in children

It’s not just weight loss you need to look out for, but also an absence of weight gain, as children should be constantly growing

What I find shocking about this study, is that we need to keep an eye on children as young as nine years old 

We are told prevention is better than cure, but when it comes to my family’s health I admit to following the ‘free-range’ style of parenting.  I’m not an avid hand washer, and am all for sharing a few bugs in a bid to boost their immunity.

However, there is a new epidemic I can’t ignore.

Eating disorders are on the rise and, according to a recent study, spotting symptoms in pre-teen children can help prevent body issues from becoming a full-blown eating disorder.

Body image

bare biology kids health Why prevention is better than cure when dealing with eating disorders in children

It’s no great revelation that early intervention is key when dealing with eating problems.  What I find shocking about this study, is that we need to keep an eye on children as young as nine years old.  When I was that age, body image wasn’t even on my radar.  I was too busy worrying about whether Lindsay liked me more than Suzanne, or if I would ever master the five-second handstand.

The research was carried out at Newcastle University, over a six-year period, as part of the Gateshead Millennium Study.  Children were asked to complete questionnaires about eating disorder symptoms, depressive feelings and body dissatisfaction when they were aged seven, nine and twelve.

I can’t help feeling asking such leading questions simply flags up issues most children will otherwise not have considered.  Should we really be asking seven-year-olds how they feel about their bodies?  But maybe that’s just me burying my head in the sand. Again.

Unobtrusively aware

bare biology kids health Why prevention is better than cure when dealing with eating disorders in children

The study found that girls and boys aged nine who displayed eating disorder symptoms ‘significantly predicted’ a higher number of symptoms by the time they were 12.

Psychologist Dr Elizabeth Evans, who led the study, said the research is different to other studies because they have focused on factors linked with the development of eating disorders to identify children at the greatest risk.

So how do we know if our children are at risk?  According to Dr Evans we need to be “unobtrusively aware” of our child's eating behaviour and attitude to food.

“Symptoms which may indicate an eating disorder would tend to be, persistent (they don't go away) and pervasive, where they impact on the child’s general quality of life,” she says.

Symptoms to look out for

These symptoms include, but are not limited to 

  • Consistently negative body image/body-based self-criticism: the child's weight and shape is a key criteria by which they seem to evaluate themselves
  • Rigid dietary restraint regarding 'fattening', sugary and/or carbohydrate foods or portion size
  • Overeating regularly to the point of physical discomfort, and marked distress around it
  • Sudden, drastic weight loss.
  • It’s not just weight loss you need to look out for, but also an absence of weight gain, as children should be constantly growing. This is a particular concern if it’s happening at the same time as worrying behaviour, stated above.

While eating disorders in children are still very rare (just 1.64 per 100,000 nine-year-olds and 9.51 per 100,000 12-year-olds), subclinical syndromes – where children show a few eating disorder symptoms – are far more common. 

“This is still very distressing for the child and their parents and I don't think enough help is offered,” says Dr Evans.  “And, as our study found, if the problems persist for a long period they are predisposed to eating disorders later in life.  Prevention really is so much better than cure.”

Parents with any concerns around their children's eating, weight or psychological well being around body image should see their GP as soon as possible.  Additional information is available at http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/eating-disorders/pages/introduction.aspx.

Charlotte Ricca Smith is a journalist and blogger who writes about real health, real women and real life.

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