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Change your mind. Change your life.


Eating Disorders Are On the Rise in Children


By Kimberly Davidson

Sara first heard “the voice,” the one that told her she was fat—much bigger than the other girls—the one that said she’d never be a real ballerina, at the tender age of five. She didn’t know how to discern this voice. As she grew into a teen, the voice became louder and stronger and she eventually developed an eating disorder.

 Most disturbing is that in 2009, the government published data showing that children under twelve-years-old were the fastest-growing population of patients hospitalized for eating disorders.  More recent statistics are not available, but experts say the problem has not gotten any better.  As educators and leaders, we are often in a prime position to notice changes in behavior and pull up the red flag.

In this culture, an obsession with food and dieting can often be mistaken for a healthy lifestyle choice. We’re often praised for working out three hours a day or having the willpower to eat teeny-tiny meals. We can download applications to help us count each calorie we ingest. These are deceptive traps disguised as a potentially deadly eating disorder—and they are ready to take over our children’s lives.

Eating disorders are often taken too lightly. The symptoms are brushed off as an attention-seeking device or a fad that the person will eventually grow out of. This is usually not the case. Let me tell you personally, no one chooses to have an eating disorder, nor is it a "lifestyle" choice or a case of vanity. As a bulimic I got stuck in the cycle of weight loss and emotional eating for seventeen years. The problem wasn’t really what I was eating, but what was eating me. My thinking was unmistakably twisted. I didn’t believe my Creator, who told me in his Word, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). All I saw were flaws because I compared myself to every famous female this culture put on a pedestal.

Eating disorders are serious with severe medical, nutritional, and psychological consequences. Reports confirm to a greater extent teens are being held captive to this dreadful disorder. One high school boy complained, “Why do all the girls I like end up having eating disorders?” They want to be thin, because it represents success and love and power—which, of course, is a lie. The personal history is usually associated with low self-worth and self-esteem.

One teen blogged, “I'm at 150 calories today. I'm exercising as soon as I get home. I plan to skip dinner. I need to reach my next goal weight by Monday, or else. Today my heart rate was 53 before lunch, about 56 now. My fingernail beds are not blue, exactly, but they’re not pink any more. And the sad thing is these symptoms thrill me. Like many of us, I have romantic ideals. I want to be the Poetic Waif, the starving artist, a princess, a fairy, something ethereal. I want to be Shakespeare's Ophelia, a nostalgic, tragic figure, living in a world of air and dreams. Instead, I have always felt the opposite. I am logical, earthy, contained, responsible, boring. Ana [anorexia] is how I deal with my failures, Ana is how I achieve my dreams. I am choosing to live in a dream world, because I cannot live in the real one. I'm slipping slowly away.”

Otherwise healthy teenage girls who diet regularly show worrying signs of malnutrition, researchers have found. Dieting can cause teenagers serious harm, potentially preventing them from developing properly. Calcium deficiency is a large concern. Data indicates:

  • By age 6, girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls, ages 6-12, are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.
  • 90 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are females between the ages of twelve and twenty-five.
  • It is estimated that 11 percent of high school students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
  • TIMEmagazine reported that 80 percent of all children have been on a diet by the time they reach the fourth grade.
  • Almost half of nine to eleven-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets. Over 80 percent of their family members are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets. Note the connection!
  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality stated hospitalizations for eating disorders jumped by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006 for children under the age of twelve. About 10 percent of teens with an eating disorder are boys, and the number is growing.
  • The 2009-2010 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service Report states that adolescent girls accounted for 90 percent of all admissions with eating disorders.

We know that in most junior and senior high schools, students are dieting even though, on average, they are not overweight. Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Expert and Vice President, Health and Medical Education at Discovery Channel, stated more than a third of normal dieters develop an eating disorder. "I always wanted to be the good girl. Good girls are skinny and happy. The bad girls are the fat ones," answered an eleven-year-old when asked why she starved herself to the point of hospitalization.

Add to this the online subculture where people are actually promoting eating disorders. They call it "thinspiration." Most can't imagine it: web sites that teach and promote eating disorders. Termed pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia), they proliferate the Internet. These diet predators are even blogging and sending Twitterupdates right to a child’s mobile phone. Experts say there may be no way to stop them. Health professionals note an increase in the number of cases and have come to consider the Internet, or “pro-eating disorder” sites, to be a source of this increase.

Eating disorders are on the rise among children. The typical at-risk profile no longer fits. Given the increases in incidence and prevalence over the past decade the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that all adolescents and preteens should be screened. In a report published online in the December, 2010 issue of Pediatrics, the AAP urges pediatricians to consider and evaluate for anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders during regular check-ups, and to be familiar with resources for treating eating disorders in their community.

Being completely comfortable with one’s body is ideal but perhaps not fully possible in a society such as ours, in which people are brought up to have a narrow view of what constitutes beauty. Still, we can take steps to counter the negative messages around us and within. First, pray!

Second, we must start talking and building up traits in young people that don’t evolve around personal appearance. The key is that the community as a whole must be part of the solution so each child repeatedly gets the same message that they are not their body.  Third, look for the red flags: changes in eating, weight loss, growth retardation, and in girls old enough to be menstruating, loss of periods.

Dr. David S. Rosen, professor of adolescent medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, is an expert on eating disorders in kids. He added, “I would argue that we ought to recognize eating disorders before we see these symptoms. We should start to be concerned when children express weight concerns, when they talk about or start diets, or if their activity level suddenly rises outside of usual recreational or athletic activities.”

Dr. James Lock said the mean age seems to be going down for the onset of eating disorders. He stressed that "early referral is essential" to keep cases from becoming chronic. If a child exhibits signs start talking, be concerned and take action. Getting good information is an important first step. But don’t ambush her or him with well-meant but overly direct or critical questioning.

God must be at the center. Dr. Harold Koenig, founding Co-Director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, states, based on research, that religious involvement is linked to a faster and more likely recovery from mental illnesses and substance abuse/dependence. I grew to know Jesus Christ as the healer of my soul and took back my life after receiving nourishment from the Bible. The healing Word provides the answers to cope with life and its challenges. Eating disorders are tough but beatable. “The Lord is the Spirit who gives them life, and where he is there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17, TLB).


Los Angeles Times/Health, “Expert sees growing problem of youngsters with eating disorders,” January 9, 2011

Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in childhood. In T. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.),
Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (2nd ed.).New York: Guilford.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, The Center for Mental Health Services, offices of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

ANAD Ten Year Study. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

See Eating Disorder Statistics:

See and

Evelyn Block,—Los Angeles, “Eating disorders on the rise in boys,” December 27, 2010

Quoted in News Talk, Author of the report: Dr. Brendan Doody; See

John Whyte, M.D., MPH, The Huffington Post, Understanding 'Non-Specified Eating Disorders,” July 2, 2010

Crystal Phend, MedPage Today, “Eating Disorder Awareness Urged for Pediatricians,” November 29, 2010

Los Angeles Times/Health, “Expert sees growing problem of youngsters with eating disorders,” January 9, 2011, See:

Linda K. George, David B. Larson, Harold G. Koenig, and Michael E. McCullough, “Spirituality and Health: What We Know, What we Need to Know,” Journal of Clinical and Social Psychology, 19, no. 1 (2008): 108





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