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Screening for Eating Disorders: Should We Do It?

Should We Be Screening Children for Eating Disorders?Lately, schools have become very interested in our kid’s health. They’ve changed the lunch menus to be “healthier” and put emphasis on exercise. While at the outset, these all seem like positive steps forward. But there’s an undertone of potential negativity to it: We’re getting young males and females to start thinking about “being fat” and worrying about gaining weight.

The Dangers of Schools Acting As Dietitians

Take the story of Sophie Anderson. She was an extremely normal 11-year-old primary school girl who liked eating. Then, she received a letter from her school that told her family that she was “at risk of being overweight” after she stepped on a scale at school. She began suffering from anorexia and kept losing weight.

Anderson said: “I had been a completely happy child but from around this time I started becoming more self-conscious about my body. The letter was certainly part of it. I am also a perfectionist, which makes you more susceptible to anorexia.”

The goal of the program was to reduce obesity, and the warnings were based on body mass index (BMI). But many different eating disorder charities have warned that the effects on young people could be detrimental to their psyche and health.

A Different Approach?

A recent report by Boston’s Children’s Hospital indicates that a screening survey in schools could help identify teens at risk for developing eating disorders.

“School-based screening would allow youth who may otherwise go undetected to access services which may significantly improve their health and quality of life,” says Dr. Kendrin Sonneville, the director of nutrition training at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Adolescent Medicine and one of the study authors. The study finds that screening is a cost-effective way to identify high-risk youth who are often under-diagnosed and undertreated, including low-income, minority, overweight and male teens.

Further, over 50 percent of adults are in favor of screening for eating disorders. But again, this isn’t without controversy. Just as the BMI letters could trigger eating disorders, sending home letters to parents about potential eating disorders could also be problematic. People lie on questionnaires so students may get missed. Others may be wrongly diagnosed. Even doctors often miss the signs of eating disorders.

Still, this is still a step in the right direction. Screening children could identify those at-risk for or currently suffering from an eating disorder, and help get them the treatment that they need.

What are your thoughts on these studies?

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

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