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A worrying trend: children with eating disorders

According to the NHS, more and more teens and children are being admitted to hospitals due to ailments associated with various eating disorders. Some children are as young as five years old. What can be done to combat this problem?

Welcome progress has been made in the past few decades towards raising awareness of the dangers, and prevalence, of eating disorders. There are many forms of eating disorder. The most well known are anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating which is linked to obesity. Yet there exists lesser known disorders such as orthorexia, which is characterised by sufferers developing an obsession with avoiding all foods they perceive as unhealthy.

The common themes among all eating disorders are the disastrous effects they can have on a person's mental and physical health. Extreme, untreated cases can result in death or severely impaired quality of life. Almost everyone would agree that this is a serious matter for the individual and society at large.

The progress in combating eating disorders is laudable, but we cannot become complacent and fall into the trap of believing the hard work has already been completed. This is especially true when it comes to educating children about eating disorders. In fact, figures released by hospitals around the UK indicate that efforts must be increased at all levels of schooling to highlight the dangers of eating disorders to children and teenagers.

The figures alluded to above make for chilling reading. In Northern Ireland alone, between 2006 and 2010, according to statistics from the Department of Health, 223 adults were treated in hospital for eating disorder related problems. On top of this, 79 children and teens between the ages of 10 and 18 were also admitted for issues brought on by eating disorders. Most chilling of all is that during this same timeframe, at least 12 children under the age of 10 required treatment due to their eating disorder.

If we extend the range to all of Britain, the prevalence of eating disorders in children and teens becomes even more obvious. For instance, the NHS reports that during the last three years, 98 children between the ages of 5 and 7 were admitted into hospital for problems brought on by eating disorders. Furthermore, the amount of young people with eating disorders increases with age. To illustrate this point, here is a quick snapshot of how many children and teenagers required hospital treatment for an eating disorder over this same period:

  1. Ninety-nine 8 to 9 year olds
  2. Nearly 400 10 to 12 year olds
  3. About 1,500 aged between 13 and 15

Remember, these are only the young people who have visited a hospital for problems stemming from their eating disorder. Or to phrase it plainly, the most severe cases where lives are actually at risk. We can expect that there are also many more children and teenagers who display a milder, but no less dangerous tendency towards destructive eating habits. To further hammer the problem home, the rates are increasing year on year.

Why are more people developing eating disorders?

This leads us to ask two questions, both equally valid. Why are more and more children and teens developing eating disorders? What can be done to combat this trend?

There are a number of answers to the first question. Bullying in schools and children being called fat, can create negative body image and depression. Without the correct guidance, this can lead to any number of eating disorders. A number of commentators have also pointed out that the culture of celebrity and the ideal body type put forward by the fashion industry lead to unrealistic expectations of how healthy individuals should appear. Children alter their eating in an attempt to look like their favourite famous people. These are just a few of the potential triggers for an eating disorder.

What can be done to combat eating disorders?

The second question has a more obvious answer. We must increase awareness and education of the dangers surrounding eating disorders, both in school and at home. Reinforcing positive eating patterns and knowing the danger signs of a child who is potentially at risk are vital. Schools, parents and experts must unite their efforts to combat eating disorders, while also offering support to those most in need as soon as possible. Only by beginning an open and frank dialogue on the subject of children and eating disorders can we start to stem the tide.

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