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Childhood Eating Problems Could be Warning Sign of Mental Issues

Kids’ Eating Problems Could Warn of Mental Issues

A new study warns parents that childhood eating problems could predict underlying psychological issues.

Researchers at the University of Montreal found that eating disorders can appear before puberty.

“Many researchers believe that bulimia only appears at adolescence, but our studies indicate that the problem can arise much earlier. It is possible that it is currently under-diagnosed due to a lack of awareness and investigation,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Dominique Meilleur.

The findings raise questions about the way eating disorders develop and are diagnosed.

Meilleur and colleagues Olivier Jamoulle, Danielle Taddeo, and Jean-Yves Frappier came to their conclusions by studying 215 eight to 12 year olds with eating problems.

The children were assessed for psychological, sociodemographic, and physiological characteristics that may be associated with disordered eating. Children with physical issues that could cause eating problems, such as diabetes or cystic fibrosis, were excluded from the study.

Researchers found that In addition to the eating problem, many children suffered from other problems including anxiety, mood disorders and attention deficits.

More than 15.5 percent of the children in the study made themselves vomit occasionally and 13.3 percent presented bulimic behaviors. “These results are very concerning but they may help clinicians reach a diagnosis earlier by enabling them to investigate these aspects,” Meilleur said.

Treatment of these conditions should start as early as possible.

Across the study, 52 percent of the children had been hospitalized at least once due to their eating problem and 48 percent had been treated as outpatients.

“The fact that most children had been hospitalized upon contact with medical services suggests that the children’s physical health was precarious.

“It is also worth noting that psychiatric issues were present in the families of 36.3 percent of the study participants,” Meilleur explained.

The presence of multiple mental health issues in association with an eating disorder is not a surprise.

“Many factors are associated with the development and persistence of eating disorders,” Meilleur said.

The results of this study indicate that 22.7 percent of the children identify having been mocked or insulted for his or her appearance as a trigger event to the modification of their behaviors.

“For some children, bullying can initiate or reinforce boy image preoccupations and possibly lead to a change in eating behavior.”

Indeed, 95 percent of the children in the study had restrictive eating behaviors, 69.4 percent were afraid of putting on weight, and 46.6 percent described themselves as “fat.”

“These behaviors reflect the clinical presentations we observe in adolescents and support findings that body image is a preoccupation for some children as early as elementary school,” Meilleur explained.

The study also proves that eating disorders are not a “girl problem” as boys in the same age group were found to be similar to girls in most cases.

The one exception to the similarity between boys and girls is that social isolation was more prevalent and lasted longer among boys.

“The profound similarity between boys and girls supports, in our opinion, the hypothesis that common psychological and physical factors linked, amongst other things, to the developmental period, are involved in the development of an eating disorder,” Meilleur said.

Source: University of Montreal
Young boy in the hospital for eating disorder photo by shutterstock.

Kids’ Eating Problems Could Warn of Mental Issues

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Kids’ Eating Problems Could Warn of Mental Issues. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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