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Study finds around 5% of children between 9 and 10 years old have an eating disorder

In a study of around 12,000 children between 9 and 10 years old, around 5% had engaged in binge eating.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Disordered eating behaviors are being reported more often among younger children, according to a study published on August 1. The study included around 12,000 children between 9 years and 10 years old.

It found that around 5% of those children had engaged in binge eating — 240 children in the study. Half that amount had taken steps to avoid gaining weight, which can be an early sign of an eating disorder if it's not medically necessary for the child.

Eating disorders among children are more likely if members of their family also have also been diagnosed with them. Disordered eating can also be comorbid with other mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

Although research exists that connects higher neuroticism to eating disorders among adults, they can also develop during adolescence. Concrete links to their causes among younger people are still mostly a mystery, according to mental health researchers. 

"It could be just a picky eater, but it could be more," said Kaitlyn Tucker, a dietician. "That body image, preoccupation, just dissatisfaction with one's self. We are seeing that younger and younger."

Tucker works with pediatric patients as young as 8 years old who have binge eating disorders. She said researchers have looked at trauma, genetics, body image and social pressure to try and find where eating disorders come from.

"It's a lot to do with figuring out emotions and why they're eating for that emotion, and how to cope with that emotion in a healthier way than food," said Tucker.

Researchers said that the COVID-19 pandemic created a "perfect storm" for eating disorders among young people. Dr. Stephanie Weatherstone, a UT professor who studies eating disorders, said the pandemic gave younger people more free time.

They may have spent more time online and browsing social media with that free time, which could have impacted their still-developing body image.

"On Instagram and things like that, what they're comparing is someone else's perfect airbrushed, filtered image with their own image that's purely visual and not at all like a four-dimensional human," she said. "It's definitely worrisome."

During adolescence, and especially at 10 years old, bodies themselves are also still growing. They require relatively high levels of nutrition to stay healthy, so eating disorders can have a physical and mental impact on children.

Weatherstone said early intervention is important to make sure children grow up healthy. 

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