Children as young as 9 are at risk for eating disorders. How parents talk about food

Eating disorders already affect 28 million Americans: 95% of cases are between the ages of 12 and 25.

A new study, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, shows how children under 10 are affected by eating disorders. The research looked at approximately 12,000 nine- to 10-year-olds between 2016 and 2018 and found that 5% engaged in binge eating behaviors and 2.5% took steps to prevent weight gain, including self-induced vomiting, which experts say many parents do not. I don’t know that children are capable of doing.

“This potentially means that millions of children in this country could be struggling with dangerous eating practices that could develop into eating disorders,” he 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 struggling. In reality, eating disorders affect people regardless of age, race, and gender. In the study, young boys and girls participated equally in habits associated with the development of an eating disorder. For one expert, it’s crucial for parents to understand that children pick up on social cues about ideal body weight and size and even the shame associated with foods historically considered “unhealthy” or saved only for “cheat” days. “.


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

Although children’s behaviors associated with the onset of an eating disorder may manifest differently than in someone older, the signs to look out for are similar, but parents and pediatricians may not recognize them. have been on the radar, especially for pre-pubescent children. Having a harmful relationship with food can only get worse if you hit puberty and notice normal body changes that can cause shame and insecurity, experts say.

Here’s what to look for and how to talk about nutrition 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 a potentially harmful way and natural growth.

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

If your child suddenly abandons a food group, it could be a sign that a disordered eating habit is developing, says Wallis. Another example is if they stop snacking after a certain time of day or have a dramatic change in their overall eating habits. Young children can also be more discrete about certain foods they eat or don’t eat, which can lead to disordered eating.

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

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

Observe 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 harmful relationship with food. Mental health struggles are skyrocketing among young people, including rates of depression and anxiety, but symptoms of eating disorders can also play a role and shouldn’t be dismissed, says Wallis.

Use neutral language around food

If there’s one thing parents and caregivers, and really everyone and anyone, should take away, it’s to be mindful of how you talk about food. It is ingrained in our language and the standards promoted by media and entertainment that there is an ideal body size. Commenting on weight, even in a more general way, can cause harm and intrusive negative thoughts in people who are at risk of developing an eating disorder. Talking about food in categories of “good” and “bad” further perpetuates the idea that people should restrict themselves.

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

If you notice a specific habit change, consider asking your kids why they might be avoiding something instead of judging by saying, “Oh, I noticed you’re not eating that unhealthy carb,” says Wallis, for example.

Instead, talk about the qualities and personality attributes that make children unique rather than forcing them to mold themselves into who others tell them to be, even if you unconsciously comment on food in ways negative

Trust your gut

“If your parental instinct is that something is wrong, you’re probably right,” says Wallis, stressing that validating and taking food concerns seriously is important.

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