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Signs of Eating Disorders
By Dr. Sally Robinson and Dr. Keith Bly

No one doubts that kids grow up fast these days, so it shouldn't be a surprise that studies of children as young as third or fourth grade find the majority of girls have tried dieting. And some of those girls are likely to develop an eating disorder.

Although parents of preteens already have plenty to worry about, it's wise to keep an eye out for eating disorders. But some popular ideas about such disorders are inaccurate, and parents need good information to spot trouble.

Most basic is understanding the common eating disorders -anorexia and bulimia- and realizing that they aren't mutually exclusive. Many think that anorexics won't eat at all, while bulimics will eat, but then they'll vomit or use laxatives to avoid digesting the food. Though the two conditions differ, many youngsters experience symptoms of both. They won't eat, and they're using laxatives or vomiting.

One widespread misconception pictures typical eating-disorder patients as perfect girls. They are attractive teens, popular and eager to please, often under pressure to excel at school, and in body-conscious sports such as gymnastics or figure skating.

But the fact is that girls who develop eating disorders are just as likely to be overweight and genuinely in need of dieting as they are to be at a healthy weight. Additionally, eating disorders are on the rise among boysæespecially those who wrestle, play football or participate in other sports in which weight is an important factor.

One clear trend is that patients with eating disorders are younger and younger. Typically, eating disorders start innocently enough when a child wants to drop a little weight. The youngster is thrilled to see that he or she can lose weight. But then the diet starts to spin out of control.

So how do parents figure out there's a problem? It can be extremely difficult because these kids are good at hiding their bodies. Sometimes parents will notice when hugging the child that he or she has lost a lot of weight. A parent may begin to see that the child never has time for meals or much of an appetite. He or she will become more susceptible to colds and other infections.

When trouble becomes apparent, it's best to consult a pediatrician and perhaps a mental health worker. If the youngster is already weak, outpatient treatment may not be enough. Some children with eating disorders have to be hospitalized, maybe with intravenous feeding to get calories in them.

Keep in mind that an eating disorder isn't impossible to beat. These kids -and often their families- need a lot of help. But the earlier treatment is started, the easier it is to succeed.

Dr. Sally Robinson is Professor of Pediatrics, and Dr. Keith Bly is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston Children's Hospital. For more information, visit: www.utmb.edu

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

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