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Eating disorders already affect 28 million Americans – those between the ages of 12 and 25 make up 95% of cases.

A new study, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, shows how people under the age of 10 are affected by eating disorders. The research studied around 12,000 nine- and ten-year-old children between 2016 and 2018 and found that 5% had engaged in binge eating behaviors and 2.5% had taken steps to avoid gaining weight, including self-induced vomiting, which experts say many parents don’t. I don’t know what children are capable of doing.

“This potentially means that millions of children in this country could be struggling with unsafe eating practices that could become eating disorders,” says Dr. Stuart Murray, director of the eating disorders program at the University of Southern California.

A common misconception is that eating disorders affect a specific type of person: typically, the media portrays a young teenage girl as one who struggles. In fact, eating disorders affect people regardless of age, race, and gender. In the study, young boys and girls also engaged in habits associated with developing an eating disorder. For an expert, it’s crucial for parents to understand that children pick up on societal cues around ideal weight and height and even the shame associated with foods historically considered ‘unhealthy’ or reserved only for ‘cheat’ days.

“Seeing these disordered eating behaviors measured in nine- and 10-year-olds mirrors what many of us have seen clinically,” says Dr. Elizabeth Wallis, a youth eating disorder expert and director of the Friedman Center for Eating Disorders.

While children’s behaviors associated with the onset of an eating disorder may manifest differently than in an older person, the signs to look out for are similar, but parents and pediatricians may not have them on their radar. radar, especially for prepubescent children. According to experts, having a harmful relationship with food can only be exacerbated by reaching puberty and noticing normal body changes that can cause shame and insecurity.

Here’s what to look for and how to talk about food and body image in a way that can help young children:

Take note if your child’s eating habits change

It can be difficult to discern the difference between a child consuming food in potentially harmful ways and having a natural growth spurt.

“Educating parents about the signs of disordered eating versus the normal eating that nine- and 10-year-olds do when they grow up is really important,” Murray says.

If your child suddenly drops out of a food group, it may be a sign that a disordered eating habit is developing, Wallis says. Another example is if they stop eating a snack after a certain time of day or have a drastic change in their general eating habits. Young children may also be more secretive about certain foods they eat or don’t eat, which can lead to eating disorders.

Eating disorders, which are said to affect more people than general eating disorders, and which are defined by symptoms such as binge eating, restriction and/or anxiety, guilt and shame associated with food and weight, can lead to various eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia. .

The way a child talks about food and even mentions calories could be an indicator of a bad relationship with food and the body, Wallis says.

Observing a child’s mood

If a child is more irritable, anxious, or stressed, especially around food or mealtimes, this could be a sign of a bad relationship with food. Mental health issues are skyrocketing among young people, including rates of depression and anxiety, but eating disorder symptoms can also play a role and shouldn’t be ignored, Wallis says.

Use neutral language around food

If there’s anything parents and caregivers should remember — and really everyone and anyone — be mindful of how you talk about food. It is ingrained in our language and in the norms promoted by media and entertainment that there is an ideal body size. Commenting on weight, even if it’s more general, can cause harm and intrusive negative thoughts in people at risk of developing an eating disorder. Talking about foods in the “good” and “bad” categories further perpetuates the idea that people should restrict.

“There’s tremendous pressure in this society to look a certain way and weigh in, and to think that young kids don’t understand that is naive,” Wallis says.

If you notice a specific habit change, consider asking your kids why they’re avoiding something rather than being judgmental by saying, “Oh, I noticed you’re not eating that unhealthy carb,” Wallis says, for example.

Instead, talk about the personality qualities and attributes that make children unique rather than forcing them to fit into who everyone tells them to be, even if you subconsciously comment negatively on food. .

Trust your instincts

“If your parenting instinct is that something is wrong, you’re probably right,” Wallis says, emphasizing the importance of validating and taking dietary concerns seriously.

Neutral, non-judgmental language is a good primary intervention, and if things persist, seeking professional help for eating disorders is recommended.