First Report Of Its Kind Reveals Childhood Eating Disorders More Common Than Thought

Of the 1.4 percent of US children aged 9 to 10 that have some type of eating disorder, binge eating makes up nearly half. SUPERMAO/Shutterstock

Mental health disorders may onset early in life, meaning that parents and healthcare professionals need to be able to recognize the signs and intervene appropriately.

And as any epidemiologist will tell you, one of the first steps of understanding an illness or condition – and how to best treat it – is to determine how many people have it and what these individuals have in common. This data allows public health researchers to gauge whether or not a society is doing a good job at managing the issue.  

To that end, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently compiled the first-ever report estimating the number of American children with specific mental disorders, using nationwide data collected between 2005 and 2011. Their research showed that 8.6 percent of American children aged 3 to 17 years were diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or behavioral issues during that time. Other CDC mental health monitoring initiatives have revealed rates of youth suicide (which are rising alarmingly), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, alcohol and drug use, and autism spectrum disorder.

One issue that we know very little about, however, is childhood eating disorders (EDs). One study, released in 2014 but based on information from 2001-2004, concluded that the prevalence of all EDs – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and others – among children aged 8 to 11 is around 0.1 percent. But this investigation, previously the only nationally representative assessment of EDs in pre-teens, did not examine the prevalence of specific types of ED separately.

Stepping in to fill this gap in knowledge, a team of psychiatrists and psychologists from the University of California San Diego and San Diego State University analyzed data from a cohort of 4,524 children, aged 9 to 10 years, who represented the total population of youngsters in that age range in the US (n=8,080,738).

Their results, now published in JAMA Pediatrics, suggests that more children suffer from eating disorders than we previously thought. Overall, 1.4 percent of the children had some type of ED. Of the affected children, 7 percent were diagnosed with anorexia, 43 percent with binge eating disorder, and 50 percent with other specified feeding/eating disorders. None had bulimia. 

The subjects were part of a separate investigation called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. As part of that research, eating disorder diagnoses were determined by a computerized survey – filled in by a parent or guardian – that was based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

Of note, the authors found rates of EDs were similar between girls and boys; in line with past research indicating such illnesses do not become more common in females until after puberty.  

Moving forward, the San Diego-based scientists hope to examine the ABCD dataset more thoroughly and conduct analyses that factor in a child's ethnicity, BMI, and concurrent psychiatric conditions.

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