Is the media’s obsession with obesity increasing eating disorders?

From the schoolhouse to the White House, everyone is talking about America’s childhood obesity epidemic. And while raising awareness on the issue is vital, is it possible that our obsession with the topic is causing some kids to go in the opposite direction? According to data released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the answer may be yes.

The journal Pediatrics recently published a study that shows eating disorders in young children are on the rise, especially among children younger than 12 years old. What’s worse, the degree of the disorders may be intensifying; the study showed a 119 percent increase in eating disorder hospitalizations among preteens when compared to data collected in the mid 1990s. The fact that these numbers surfaced around the time the media took such an interest in obesity has some people wondering if there’s a correlation.

“We live in a very weight-obsessive society where the average body size is getting larger, but what’s considered the ideal body type isn’t,” says Alison Field, ScD, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Division of Adolescent Medicine and lead investigator of a National Institutes for Health funded project evaluating how eating disorders should be defined in children and adolescents. “If the standard for what’s considered desirable is that much harder to obtain, it may lead more young people developing eating disorders in order to achieve it.”

Clearly eating disorders are dangerous for everyone, but they can be especially risky for preteens because of the irreversible harm they can do to developing bodies, particularly to growing bones.

“The affect eating disorders have on young bones is staggering,” says Field. “Based on the data, it appears malnourishment during pubescent growth spurts can permanently age bones and prevent the person from reaching the height they normally would.”

Whatever role our growing awareness of obesity plays in the spread of eating disorders, Field stresses that parents are the best line of defense against their children developing one. She says it’s important for parents to be aware of changes in their child’s weight, eating habits, growth patterns and attitude about food and body image. Extreme fluctuation or preoccupation with any of these issues could be an indicator of an eating disorder, even if the child isn’t showing any other symptoms.

“If weight is always on your child’s mind or you’re concerned about their health, it’s time to bring it up with her and her pediatrician,” she says. “And it’s important that the conversation tries to get to the root of the problem: Why does she think a change in weight would improve her life? Open dialogue about the problem’s origin leads to more effective and longer lasting treatment.”

Alison Field, ScD

How parents address their own weight when around their young children is also very important. Just like modeling proper eating habits is crucial in getting kids to make good food choices, maintaining a healthy body image at home can help children develop positive attitudes about their own bodies.

“Parents that self-deprecate or harp on their partner’s weight in front of their children may be contributing to self-esteem issues in their kids,” says Field. “It sends a very clear message to children that weight is important for self-evaluation, which can have a very negative impact on impressionable minds.”

While a possible connection between obesity awareness and a rise in eating disorders should be noted, Field stresses the correlation shouldn’t hamper any programs that aim to reduce childhood obesity. In fact, she believes improved awareness of both conditions could have a very positive effect on the overall heath of young people in America.

“The most successful obesity prevention programs aren’t just focused on weight, but on getting kids to adopt healthier lifestyles, which is also important in decreasing eating disorders,” she says. “If people focus on adopting healthy behaviors, not for body image reasons but for wellness, it would do a lot in reducing both the number of obesity and eating disorder cases in the country.”

Children’s Hospital Boston pediatrician Claire McCarthy, MD, talks about her own struggle with anorexia, as well as how she tries to focus on health instead of body image in talks with her own children. Read the whole post here.

If you think it’s possible that your child may have an eating disorder, Field recommends you immediately speak with your child’s doctor. For further information on the warning signs, or a more detailed look at the types, severities and dangers associated with eating disorders, she suggests the following websites:

Center for Young Women’s Health at Children’s Hospital Boston recognizes the urgent need for education, clinical care, research and health care advocacy for adolescent girls and provides resources on a variety of female teen issues, including healthy eating and eating disorders.

The Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) Cutting-edge, professional training and education in eating disorders research, prevention and clinical treatments.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) is a resource for eating disorder programs, support groups, education, prevention, advocacy and research.

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is the largest not-for-profit organization in the United States that provides information, newsletters and treatment referrals to people suffering from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder or who are concerned with body image and weight issues.

National Women’s Health Information Center (NWHIC), a service of the Office on Women’s Health in the US Department of Health and Human Services, is a resource with current information on more than 800 topics, including eating disorders, affecting women’s health today.

Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders provides links, statistics, polls, research and in-depth information on eating disorders, including signs, causes, treatment and recovery.