Eating Disorders Can Start as Early as Grade School

By Shawn Dwyer 10/09/14

An alarming new study found that children as young as eight years old displayed eating disorder behaviors like making themselves vomit.

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Researchers from the University of Montreal and the CHU Sainte-Justine children's hospital conducted a study which found that children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old can show restrictive eating behaviors that may trigger disorders like anorexia and bulimia later in life.

Led by Prof. Dominique Meilleur, a clinical psychologist, the researchers presented their findings earlier this week at a conference for the Eating Disorders Association of Canada in Vancouver.

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

In their study, the researchers examined 215 children between 8 and 12 years old who had eating problems. They found that a staggering 95% had restrictive eating behaviors, 69% were afraid of putting on weight, and 47% considered themselves to be "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," says Prof. Meilleur.

Even more striking, the researchers discovered that around 15% of the children occasionally purged themselves, while roughly 13% displayed bulimic behaviors. Additionally, around 52% of the children had been hospitalized at least once from complications due to their eating disorder, while 48% were treated as outpatients.

Over a third of the children had some kind of psychiatric condition that was part of their families, and almost a quarter stated that their appearance had been mocked by peers, triggering their particular eating disorder.

"Many factors are associated with the development and persistence of eating disorders," said Prof. Meilleur. "For some children, bullying can initiate or reinforce body image preoccupations and possibly lead to a change in eating behavior."

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.