Though eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are typically associated with teenagers and young adults, researchers caution parents that children between 8 and 12 years old who are difficult eaters could have lurking psychological issues. The team adds that restrictive eating behaviors can surface before puberty.
Led by Prof. Dominique Meilleur, a clinical psychologist, the research questions how eating disorders develop and are diagnosed, as she explains:
"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."
To conduct their studies, Prof. Meilleur and colleagues studied the psychological, sociodemographic and physiological characteristics of 215 children between the ages of 8 and 12 with eating problems. The team found that 95% of the children had restrictive eating behaviors, 69.4% were afraid of putting on weight and 46.6% 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," says Prof. Meilleur.
Additionally, the study revealed that around 15.5% of the children occasionally made themselves vomit and 13.3% had bulimic behaviors. "These results are very concerning," adds Prof. Meilleur, "but they may help clinicians reach a diagnosis earlier by enabling them to investigate these aspects." Of the children, 52% had been hospitalized at least once as a results of their eating problem, and 48% had been treated as outpatients. The researchers add that psychiatric issues were also present in the families of 36.3% of the children.
"Many factors are associated with the development and persistence of eating disorders," says Prof. Meilleur. "For some children, bullying can initiate or reinforce body image preoccupations and possibly lead to a change in eating behavior."
Of the children in the study, 22.7% reported being mocked or insulted for their appearance, which they identified as a trigger for modifying their eating behaviors.
Although eating disorders are typically ascribed to females, the study found that boys in the same age group were similar to the girls in most cases, with the exception being a link with social isolation, which the researchers say was greater and lengthier for boys.
Prof. Meilleur concludes:
"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."