These are the words of Jessica (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), a now 13-year-old girl who suffered from an eating disorder for more than a year before admitting she needed help.
This is just one instance of an alarming new trend that surfaced regarding eating disorders among children. According to new study from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, cases are on the rise. An article from CNN reported that findings show hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of 12 have increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.
Just a few of the effects of eating disorders include extreme weight loss, low energy levels, low iron counts, and hair loss. These are signs more and more dietitians are seeing in children coming into their offices.
An issue that has remained largely in the dark displays how problematic a person’s relationship with food can be at any age. An eating disorder can start any number of ways. For Jessica, it was when she stepped on her parents’ scale and thought the number was high. That moment sparked a heightened awareness of her weight. And that awareness, coupled with bullies in her class calling her fat, led her to start severely restricting what she ate in an effort to get thin.
“I wanted to keep losing weight, and keep getting skinnier,” she said. And although she eventually ended up receiving treatment, it wasn’t until one full year after her restrictive eating began.
The dangers of childhood eating disorders are plenty, especially since kids often don’t fully realize what they’re doing or that eating disorders can be potentially fatal. And with childhood obesity taking center stage as the hot ticket issue to solve right now, eating disorders have gotten lost in the noise.
DietsInReview.com’s resident mental health expert, Brooke Randolph, LMHC, comments on this alarming trend, saying the solution first has to start with parents.
“The only way that we change how children view food is to change how we view food. For a child’s relationship with food to change, the entire family’s approach to food must change,” she said. “‘Food cannot be a punishment, but we also need to be careful about using it as a reward. If we use food as comfort, to reward, or to cure boredom, our children will learn to do all of those things. If we treat food drastically differently on special occasions than on other days, our children will learn to overindulge and change the rules. And if food is overly restricted, it will become even more important to a child.”
But just like adults who may not fully realize whether they’re simply eating healthfully or over-restricting their diet, it becomes even more difficult for a child to make the distinction. “Children cannot know the difference between trying to be healthy and disordered eating simply by observing behavior,” said Randolph. “We need to talk to them about healthy choices and the reasons we make certain choices.”
Because the responsibility lies primarily with the parent, it’s important for parents to know how to promote their child’s health. Randolph suggests first making sure that they themselves are a positive role model and instructor to their child, because kids learn most from their family environment, especially concerning things like food.
For parents of children like Jessica, this is an important message to realize. Beyond just teaching our kids about having a healthy relationship with food, teaching them to have a healthy relationship with their own bodies has to be stressed as well. This is something Jessica was able to realize on the road to recovery from her eating disorder. And the message she hopes to share is this: “Be happy in your own skin, because everyone is different and everyone is beautiful in their own way.”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.