More than 1 in 5 children worldwide are at risk of developing an eating disorder such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating, a new analysis suggests.
The study was published this month in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers analyzed data for 63,181 adolescents 6 to 18 years old from 16 countries to look for what is called “disordered eating.” None of the children included in the study had diagnosed physical or mental disorders, and data was not included from the COVID-19 time period.
The researchers examined results from a widely used standardized eating disorder questionnaire called the Sick, Control, One, Fat, Food (SCOFF). When someone answers yes to two or more of the questions, the person is considered to have disordered eating, which “denotes a suspicion of an existing eating disorder,” the researchers write. The five questions are:
Do you make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
Do you worry you have lost control over how much you eat?
Have you recently lost more than 14 pounds in a 3-month period?
Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?
Would you say that food dominates your life?
Overall, 22% of children replied yes to two or more of the questions. The proportion of children with disordered eating is likely even higher, the researchers explain, because children may hide symptoms “due to feelings of shame or stigmatization.”
The findings are a dramatic shift from the estimation that 2.7% of people ages 13 to 18 have an eating disorder during their adolescent years.
In this latest study, disordered eating was more common among girls, older children, and those with a higher body mass index, or BMI, which is a combined measure of height and weight.
The analysis showed that 30% of girls had disordered eating compared to 17% of boys. When looking at responses by age, the proportion of kids with disordered eating increased by 20 percentage points between the ages of 10 to 18.
The findings regarding children who already have a high BMI confirms previous research that many of those children are already following disordered eating behaviors while trying to lose weight, the authors write.
“Although most adolescents who develop an eating disorder do not report prior excess weight problems, some adolescents could misinterpret what eating healthy consists of and engage in unhealthy behaviors (eg, skipping meals to generate a caloric deficit), which could then lead to development of an eating disorder,” the researchers explain.
The study points to the need for parents, caregivers, and health care professionals to be on the lookout for disordered eating symptoms in children because they are linked to the risk of developing a clinical eating disorder. The symptoms to watch for include behaviors such as weight loss dieting, binge eating, self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and the use of laxatives or diuretics, the researchers write.
JAMA Pediatrics: “Global Proportion of Disordered Eating in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.”
National Institute of Mental Health: “Eating Disorders.”