Obesity backlash: Docs warned to look for eating disorders in kids

Ramped-up efforts to address the epidemic of obesity among American children may be having an unintended consequence: A sharp increase in the number of kids afflicted by eating disorders.

The problem is not just about teens scrutinizing themselves in the mirror. According to a new government report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, hospitalizations for eating disorders soared 119 percent among children under age 12 from 1999 to 2006. And eating disorder sufferers are not only getting younger, but are increasingly male and of non-Caucasian descent, noted the report, published in the December issue of Pediatrics.

Thus, the AAP recommends that pediatricians screen for anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders as part of annual checkups or sports physicals. If an eating disorder is suspected, a more thorough history and physical exam should be ordered, and possibly an assessment for psychological problems, as well.

Depending on the definitions used, the prevalence of eating disorders is estimated to be between 0.8 percent and 14 percent, the report noted, with certain athletes--such as gymnasts and runners--at the highest risk. Among children under 13, growth failure may be a doctor's only sign that there is a problem.

"Pediatricians need to be aware of the early symptoms of eating disorders because they are the medical professional that a child is mostly likely to see in any given year," Dr. Jim Lock, director of the Eating Disorder Program at Packard Children's Hospital, told ABC News. "They are the gatekeepers."

As we've previously reported in relation to weight issues, especially with this age group, sensitivity is a must. "When counseling families on preventing obesity, pediatricians should focus on healthy eating and building self-esteem while still addressing weight concerns," cautioned authors David S. Rosen, MD, MPH, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and colleagues. "Care needs to be taken not to inadvertently enable excessive dieting, compulsive exercise, or other potentially unhealthy weight-management strategies," they wrote.

To learn more:
- read the article in MedPage Today
- see this ABC News piece
- here's an abstract of the Pediatrics report