Eating disorders have increased by about 50 percent in the last ten years, according to Lori Feldman-Winter, MD, MPH, Division Head of Adolescent Medicine at Cooper University Hospital. The most common eating disorder today is ED-NOS, Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. Young girls can become preoccupied with eating and dieting as early as pre-school, even though the behaviors may not show up until later. “This is difficult, because over time, the thought patterns become ingrained,” says Dr. Feldman-Winter. “We would like to identify these thought patterns as early as possible because that’s going to lead to a more likely, complete resolution of the disorder.”
Predominantly girls are affected, with only 5-10 percent of boys having eating issues. Typically, these girls have a distortion in body image. Doctors are able to show a patient illustrations of different body images, and ask the girl to circle the one who she believes mostly resembles her own body. “Very often, there’s a big disparity between the girl she circles and where she actually falls in her own BMI (body mass index) percentile,” says Dr. Feldman-Winter.
The most important thing parents can do is to teach their children healthy eating and exercise habits. With an obesity epidemic in our country, there’s a lot of talk about weight and dieting. “We’re trying to shift that focus to proper nutrition and physical activity,” she explains. “Proper nutrition starts from birth. Everybody thinks that really fat babies are cute, but now we realize that really fat babies may be at risk for having problems with obesity.”
Parents and other adults must also be careful about comments they make that may be harmful to a girl’s self-esteem. A mother complaining about her own appearance, or a coach pushing a dancer to hold her stomach in, can help trigger a girl’s distorted perception of her own body image.
If you notice that your child is restricting what she’s eating, that may be cause for concern. As a child grows, she must gain weight to maintain that growth. If she is getting taller but not gaining weight, that is a red flag. Also, if she makes comments suggesting a disgust with fatness, she may turn that inward. If you are concerned, take your child to her doctor where she can get the help she needs to get back on track before serious, irreversible damage is done.