Children, Not Just Teenagers, May Be Vulnerable to Bulimia

father holding his daughter in his arms

For a long time, experts believed that eating disorders like bulimia nervosa became a risk when children reached adolescence. However, a new study from the University of Montreal adds to the evidence that eating disorders can affect young people earlier than previously thought, becoming a risk well before they reach puberty.

The Canadian research team looked at 215 children between the ages of 8 and 12 who had so-called “eating problems.” The vast majority of the children in the study—95 percent—engaged in restrictive eating behaviors.

More than 15 percent of the young people in the study occasionally purged (vomited) after eating, while around 13 percent showed behaviors that were consistent with a diagnosis of bulimia. These eating problems had serious consequences for a significant number of the study subjects—52 percent of them had been hospitalized due to their eating problems, while 48 percent had received some form of outpatient treatment.

The Montreal researchers believe that misconceptions about bulimia being an adolescent illness contribute to a lack of recognition and diagnosis among younger people, who are then at higher risk for serious complications because they are not receiving full treatment.

Early Concerns About Weight, Body Image

Eating disorders are largely associated with adolescents because anxieties about weight and body image are also associated with the onset of puberty. However, research like the new Montreal study is increasingly suggesting that concerns about body shape, about gaining weight and about other body image issues often begin when children are still in elementary school.

Of the subjects in this new study, 47 percent reported believing they were “fat.” In addition, 69 percent said they were concerned about gaining weight. Some concerns about weight and appearance seemed to be connected with bullying—almost 23 percent of the children said they had been made fun of for the way they looked.

Boys in Study Show Similar Eating Problems

The study found similar rates of eating problems, body image concerns and other related issues among girls and boys of the same age. Eating disorders have long been associated with women and girls, especially teenage girls, and the vast majority of eating disorders are diagnosed in female patients. However, newer research is suggesting that eating disorders affect men in significant numbers, and that failure to diagnose and treat eating disorders among men is a common problem.

The results of this study support this hypothesis, showing that male children often suffer from body image problems and disordered eating behaviors.

Both Genders Reaching Puberty Earlier

The fact that both girls and boys have begun to hit puberty earlier may also be contributing to eating and body image problems among younger children. In the last few years, studies have found that girls are now reaching puberty at 9.7 years of age on average, and that boys are reaching puberty at age 10.

For girls, this is several months younger than the figures from similar studies in the 1990s, and several years younger than the average for girls in the 1960s. Like eating disorders, this was thought to be a female phenomenon for some time. However, a study in the November 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics found that the average age at which boys hit puberty was also much younger than the long accepted figure of 11-and-a-half years old.

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