More kids than ever before are dealing with eating disorders in the United States, and the problem is showing up much earlier, too. According to a study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, children under 12 who were hospitalized for an eating disorder increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.
And it’s not just affecting girls and young women. A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that 10 to 15 percent of males suffer from eating disorders as well.
“Every time I looked at myself, I saw this huge stomach, love handles and a bald head,” said Brian Cuban, author of Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
The younger brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Brian said he was “fat-shamed” by his mother, as well as bullied and physically assaulted at school, leading him to develop body dysmorphic disorder – a condition that causes a person to have a distorted view of his or her body.
About a third of people who are diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder also have an eating disorder, according to a study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
During his freshman year of college, Cuban developed anorexia and bulimia, eventually became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and even attempted suicide. He suffered for 27 years until finally getting help in 2007 and turning his life around.
For boys like Cuban who suffer from an eating disorder, it’s harder to get help, let alone talk to their parents about it. “Gender stigma for men and body image has lagged way behind,” Cuban said.
The obesity problem
According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, teens who are overweight or obese are not only at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder, but diagnosing and treating the disorders is delayed. And on the flip side, binge eating disorder can lead a child to become obese.
“You walk a fine line in trying to promote healthy eating and weight loss for the kids who need it and with those who don’t need it,” said Dr. Rebecca O’Brien, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a member of the AAP committee on adolescence. O’Brien said she’s seen kids who take a nutrition class at school and then start counting calories.
What causes eating disorders?
Eating disorders usually show up during puberty and in early adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 20. Although it’s not clear why a child might develop an eating disorder, genetics may play a role. “There may be some people genetically more loaded to get an eating disorder,” O’Brien said. Often times, an anxiety disorder or depression can co-occur with an eating disorder.
Most likely, it’s a perfect storm of genetics, media messages, and the right set of circumstances—poor self-esteem and criticism by others. “You have to be really careful about making comments, particularly to young girls,” O’Brien said. “As they start to go through puberty, it’s a very uncomfortable time for kids.”
Know the warning signs
Think your kid has an eating disorder? Here are some things you should look for:
-Restricting calories, food avoidance, reading labels, changes in diet
-talk about dieting
-loss of menstrual periods
-weight is 15 percent below ideal
-distorted body image or body critiquing
-purging, use of laxatives, excessive exercise
-isolating from family and friends
-scraping and bruising of the finger joints
-yellowing of teeth or dental problems.
If you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, here’s what you can do:
Instead of assuming what your kid is going through, put yourself in his or her shoes and have an open mind. “Learning how to say something is as important as what you say,” Cuban said.
“Get over yourself; it’s not about you,” said Cuban, who added that the biggest barrier parents face when getting help is that they think they failed. Yet realizing that you have no control over your child’s behavior is an important step. “All you can do is to put your child in a position to succeed,” he said.
Enlist a pro
“The sooner you get someone into treatment, the quicker they get better,” O’Brien said. She added it’s important to see your child’s primary doctor who can assess your kid’s physical health first and then help you find a specialist.
Your child may work with a therapist and dietitian or a family therapist who can help you model habits and change behaviors.
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.