Eating disorders in children : What are they and how you can help

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When we think of the term eating disorder, most people think of adults or teenagers, but eating disorders affect children as well. Physical development of children is a vital component of childhood and eating disorders can lead to significant damage to the child both mentally and physically — and can create a lot of stress for the family. While children will vary in their eating habits, making sure that a child develops a healthy relationship with food is one of parents’ most important and difficult jobs. Therefore, early detection and prevention is key for every parent or anyone that works with children who may be susceptible to the risk of developing an eating disorder. اضافة اعلان

According to the UK’s National Health Service, an eating disorder is a mental health illness where “you use the control of food to cope with feelings or other situations.” Eating disorders can happen to any child of any gender, race, or ethnicity. Eating disorders can range from developing unhealthy habits of eating too much or eating too little and worrying about your weight or body shape. With the appropriate treatment, it is possible for someone to recover from their eating disorder. However, due to the lack of resources, education, and awareness surrounding this mental illness, many people go far too long without being diagnosed or receiving the help and treatment necessary. This contributes to the fact that according to multiple sources, including the US’ National Institute of Health, eating disorders remain the deadliest mental illness today. The Eating Disorders Coalition reports that every 62 minutes, at least one person loses their life as a direct result of an eating disorder, with anorexia nervosa having the highest mortality rate amongst all eating disorders.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that the global prevalence of eating disorders increased from 3.4 percent to 7.8 percent between 2000 and 2018. According to John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, 95 percent of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12–25. A recent study in the British Medical Journalist Open Journal found that cases of anorexia have nearly doubled between 2006 and 2015 in preteen children in the UK and Ireland. The study stated that those vulnerable to developing an eating disorder may have been exposed to risk factors such as being pressured to diet or do well at school at an earlier age.

A 2020 study released in the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal reported variable prevalence rates of 12–40 percent of eating disorders in Jordanian adolescents. One study byOhio Wesleyan University that looked at the prevalence, perceptions, treatments of eating disorders in Jordan found 72 percent of surveyed students at a Jordanian university believed that young Jordanian women struggled with an eating disorder, with 14 percent of those surveyed reporting that they have or are currently struggling with an eating disorder. The study suggested that culture, media, and a lack of resources and education serve as major reasons behind low self-body image and eating disorders among Jordanian women. Another 2018 study published in the International Journal of Nursing Practice found that among 963 Jordanian students sampled, disordered eating was present in 40.4 percent and body shape dissatisfaction was present in 16.8 percent. The study also found that self-induced vomiting, substance abuse, and smoking, were common weight loss behaviors. In addition, sociocultural variables including parents, peers, and mass media where significantly associated with disordered eating among Jordanian youth who try to embrace Western norms to fit in with the demands of Western culture portrayed in media.

While there are various types of eating disorders, there are some that are more common in young children. One of the most common eating disorders in children is avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). ARFID is characterized by a disturbance in eating, such as a lack of interest in food or having a sensory aversion to certain foods due to their texture. This stops children from being able to swallow a type of food even if it was something they once enjoyed. A child with ARFID may also have a fear that eating a certain food will give them a stomachache or cause them to vomit. Forcing a child with ARFID to finish their plate because it is culturally deemed as rude will only cause them more anxiety and stress. Instead, you should encourage them to slowly widen their food palette and reward positive eating behavior.

A 2020 study released in the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal reported variable prevalence rates of 12–40 percent of eating disorders in Jordanian adolescents.
Another eating disorder in children is pica, a condition characterized by a child persistently eating substances that are not considered food. This can include dirt, chalk, sand, and hair. This behavior must fall out of a child’s expected developmental level, so an infant chewing on their toys does not qualify as pica. Clinicians usually encounter pica when working with children who have an intellectual disability or those with specific sensory needs such as oral stimulation — common in children with a type of autism spectrum disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is a common eating disorder that can affect both girls and boys. Children with anorexia have a distorted body image and believe that they are overweight, therefore begin to obsess over their food intake and wanting to control their weight. They usually maintain a weight that is below average to their height and weight. However, anorexia is not just about weight, but about unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with emotional problems, perfectionism, and a desire for control. Anorexia is usually comorbid with mood or anxiety disorders in children and adolescents.

Some children suffer from a different eating disorder that involves consuming abnormally large amounts of food without attempting to get rid of those calories once they are consumed. This is called binge eating disorder and tends to result in obesity and sufferers usually struggle to regulate their emotions and have trouble in dealing with stress.

It is common in the Middle East for older family members or even family friends to comment on a child’s changing body, especially young girls, as it goes through puberty and any natural changes that come with that, such as weight gain or weight loss. Despite the intentions behind such comments, they tend to be misinterpreted and can have a negative effect on a child’s self-image. Developing a healthy self-image cannot come from other’s advice on how one should change their body but should originate from within. Therefore, misdirected comments can disrupt a child’s process of achieving a healthy self and body-image.

Eating disorders are not always obvious, and while a child might look “normal” on the outside, they might be dealing with serious physical and emotional problems. Some early signs of an eating disorder are the child no longer wanting to eat things that they used to enjoy and taking a longer time that usual to eat their food. They might even try to avoid eating when the rest of the family eats and avoid going to events with food, such as birthdays.

It is important to take comments that a child might make about their body and how much they don’t like it seriously, as is a telling sign of a possibly serious problem the child is experiencing. They might also make comments about other people’s bodies as well. Children with anorexia might experience feeling cold, dizzy, and tired. They might also experience thinning hair loss and not getting their period or other delayed signs of puberty. Weight loss and the desire to constantly exercise all the time are other alarming signs as well.

Children with AFRID usually avoid eating certain categories foods such as fruits and vegetables and prefer foods with lots of carbs. In addition, they will only eat specific brands and at specific restaurants too. As for children with binge eating disorder, they usually feel embarrassed about the amount of food they are consuming, however they feel such a compulsion to eat that they cannot stop. They might also try frequent dieting without weight loss. Children with eating disorders might exhibit behavioral problems as well such as a lack of focus at school, throwing tantrums, and changes in mood such as feeling anxious, depressed, or withdrawn.

Treating eating disorders requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves different health professionals. Common therapeutic approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and basic nutrition counseling.
Eating disorders are not always obvious, and while a child might look “normal” on the outside, they might be dealing with serious physical and emotional problems.
As a parent, the best way to help a child struggling with an eating disorder is to be vigilant and watch for warning signs. By educating yourself on the topic you can stay informed, especially as the body of work studying eating disorders is growing. Misinformation about eating disorders and how to treat them are peddled online, through commercials, on social media, and sometimes even through otherwise credible sources. One of the most common myths is that children with eating disorders simply choose not to eat. Eating disorders are a serious and complex medical and mental illness that children do not choose to have.

Researchers and clinical experts believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may lead to a child developing an eating disorder. The family environment plays a crucial role in determining the kind of relationship a child will develop with food. Therefore it is fundamental to model healthy eating practices and communicate openly with your child about the harmful media messages about weight and body image bombarding them at all times. Criticizing a child for their body shape, weight, and eating habits — no matter your intentions — can be the first or final trigger for that child to enter a long battle with the deadliest mental illness.

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