Young children are being diagnosed with eating disorders more than ever.

Concerned: Hunter New England Health's Dr Melissa Hart says children as young as six are presenting with eating disorders in the region. Picture: Ryan Osland.

Concerned: Hunter New England Health's Dr Melissa Hart says children as young as six are presenting with eating disorders in the region. Picture: Ryan Osland.

CHILDREN as young as six years old are requiring treatment for eating disorders in the Hunter Region.

Experts have warned that young children are increasingly developing the potentially life-threatening mental illness as they grow up in an environment that it is more “promoting” of eating disorders than ever.

Hunter New England Health eating disorders coordinator Dr Melissa Hart said that while there was “not a lot” of specific data for the region, the incidence of eating disorders - such as anorexia and bulimia - had been increasing, particularly in the 15-to-24 age group.

Males were increasingly being diagnosed with an eating disorder, as well as more children under the age of 12.

“They can be as young as six years old,” Dr Hart said.

There is a lot of comments coming from primary school children about dieting and not eating too much fat and not gaining weight.

Dr Melissa Hart

“That is still not common, but it is more common than it used to be. There is a lot of comments coming from primary school children about dieting and not eating too much fat and not gaining weight, which, when I was at school, you just wouldn’t hear that. But that dialogue is happening, and it’s really not helpful for eating disorders.”

Dr Hart said younger children were increasingly restricting food and cutting out certain food groups. They were aware of the fat and calorie content of food, and their body size and shape.

A societal emphasis on dieting and body image had created an environment that was “very promoting” of eating disorders.

“That talk about dieting and that emphasis on body image dissatisfaction is unfortunately part of our society and something we need to change,” Dr Hart said.

“It is definitely a risk factor for developing eating disorders, but unfortunately a risk factor that is becoming more prominent in our society.”

Chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, Christine Morgan, said while there was no single cause, children were increasingly being exposed to the triggers and influences for eating disorders.

“One of the trends that we are observing is children being aware of ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ and that one is ‘bad’ and the other ‘good’,” Ms Morgan said. 

“For someone with a genetic vulnerability, nutritional deprivation is a serious risk and such deprivation can readily result from a young child restricting their food intake.”

Ms Morgan said boys and young men were increasingly exposed to the same environmental triggers.

For help and support call the Butterfly Foundation’s support line on 1800 33 4673 or the Mental Health Helpline on 1800 011 511.

“There is a dangerous cocktail of the increasing representation of the ideal masculine body shape, together with strong messages about dieting and nutrition control,” Ms Morgan said.

“Couple this with increased levels of stress, anxiety and social isolation in young boys and it is not surprising that we are seeing an increase in young boys and men with eating disorders.”

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