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Children and Weight: Are We Stressing Them Out Unnecessarily?

Children and Eating DisordersObese children are often at-risk for health disorders like high blood pressure and heart disease, but the cure – losing weight – may also be just as risky for them. According to a recent report in Pediatrics, two studies indicate that children who were once obese may be a higher risk for developing eating disorders – and doctors may not be paying attention to the signs.

What’s the Danger?

Sophie Anderson, an 11-year-old girl, received a letter from the National Child Measurement Program that she was at-risk for being overweight. Her response was to stop eating and strictly dieting. She eventually began to suffer from anorexia. Sophie now speaks out against weighing children in school.

“I had been a completely happy child but from around this time I started becoming more self-conscious about my body,” said Sophie.

While it is important to ensure that kids remain healthy, are we taking weighing children too far?

Why Obese Children Develop Eating Disorders

The studies cited in Pediatrics showed the dangers of eating disorders amongst obese children. According to the report, “while 6 percent of all young people suffer from eating disorders, an unpublished study cited in the report found that nearly half of adolescents who presented for eating disorder treatment had a history of obesity, and that it took significantly longer for those patients to be identified compared with patients who did not have such a weight history.”

But why is this population especially vulnerable? Leslie Sim, an assistant professor of psychology and eating disorders expert at the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minn., has a theory:

“We think obese kids are at risk for eating disorders because they are getting a lot of media messages that they are not healthy and that there is something wrong with them and they need to change their ways,” Sim said. “And because they are teens, they do extreme things.”

The larger issue, however, is that doctors are less likely to diagnose these children with eating disorders since they consider it healthy to lose weight – even when parents have pointed out that they’re concerned about their children.

The Pediatrics study focused on two cases of teens that had been obese, but then developed eating disorders. Despite a mother’s concern that her son losing nearly half his body weight in two years, the doctors seeing the boy never thought that the boy had an eating disorder. He only got evaluated when his mother insisted.

So what’s the solution here?

There’s no easy solution to these problems. Yet, maybe as opposed to just focusing on weight, doctors, schools and parents can focus on health. Make sure kids get a balanced meal. It’s not normal for children to lose weight when they’re adolescents, so verify that your child is eating and what they’re eating.

Get your child active in sports or other activities like hiking, yoga or video games that require them to move. Whatever you do, don’t focus on appearance and body size.

Rachel Levi, LMFT, CEDS, F- IAEDPFounder/Clinical Director
Shoreline Center for Eating Disorder Treatment

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