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.