Over 1 in 5 children have an eating disorder, study reveals

CIUDAD REAL, Spain — Three in 10 girls have an eating disorder, according to a shocking new study. Anorexia, bulimia, and other extreme dieting behaviors also affect one in six boys, according to the findings.

Overall, more than one in five children (22%) suffer with eating disorders. Study authors describe the findings as “concerning,” highlighting the need for prevention strategies. Scientists pooled data from 32 prior studies involving more than 63,000 participants between the ages of seven and 18 from 16 countries to reach these results.

“Identifying the magnitude of disordered eating and its distribution in at-risk populations is crucial for planning and executing actions aimed at preventing, detecting and dealing with them,” writes corresponding author Dr. Jose Francisco Lopez-Gil from the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Some blame social media for promoting the “thin ideal” — fueling increasing body dissatisfaction among youngsters who are not even overweight. The phenomenon can knock decades off an individual’s life, the international team warns.

“Indeed, eating disorders are among the most life-threatening psychiatric problems,” Dr. Lopez-Gil continues. “People with these conditions die 10 to 20 years younger than the general population.”

Signs of a future eating disorder can show up early in life

This first study of its kind is based on a questionnaire called SCOFF (Sick, Control, One, Fat, Food). A total of 14,856 of the 63,181 children and adolescents involved showed signs of disordered eating, with the proportion significantly higher in girls (30%) than boys (17%). Rates were up with age and increasing BMI (body mass index).

“These findings can inform intervention priorities for disordered eating as a global health initiative to prevent possible health problems among young people, particularly in girls and young people with higher BMI,” the researchers note. “Our findings indicate more than 1 in 5 children and adolescents presented with disordered eating.”

“It is noteworthy that disordered eating and eating disorders are not similar because not all children and adolescents who reported disordered eating behaviors will necessarily be diagnosed with an eating disorder,” the team adds.

“However, disordered eating in childhood/adolescence may predict outcomes associated with eating disorders in early adulthood. For this reason, this high proportion found is worrisome and call for urgent action to try to address this situation.”

Millions of children display signs of disordered eating

In 2019, 14 million people experienced eating disorders, including almost three million children and adolescents.

“The behaviors related to eating disorders may lead to greater risk or damage to health, significant distress or significant impairment of functioning,” Dr. Lopez-Gil’s team writes in their report.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan aims to strengthen information systems, evidence, and research.

“In this sense, our systematic review and meta-analysis contributes by providing epidemiological evidence on the current situation of disordered eating that, if undetected and untreated, can lead to harmful consequences for the individual, the family and society,” researchers explain.

“Similarly, the high proportion of dis-ordered eating found in this systematic review and meta-analysis reinforce the importance of screening eating disorders in primary care setting.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises screening young people through longitudinal height and weight monitoring and looking for symptoms.

“In this sense, the SCOFF questionnaire is simple, memorable and easy for applying and scoring which may be considered the first approach to identify the need fora more detailed and specialized evaluation,” Dr. Lopez-Gil concludes. “However, positive results should be followed by further questioning, prior to an automatic referral to mental health professionals.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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