More children with eating disorders: confused by anti-obesity messages

Everyday we are bombarded with more statistics about the increasing rate of obesity in Australia, ways to curb obesity and information about what the government is going to do about the epidemic.
But there is a section of society, at the complete other end of the scale, that we are forgetting.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia, body dysmorphia remain the quiet killer in Australia, while the health impacts of obesity are shouted from the rooftops.

Similarly with the obesity epidemic, the messages about healthy weight and eating habits vary between adults and children.

The message being delivered is that most adults could stand to lose some weight, but this seems to be misconstrued by children.

Doctors have started treating a new kind of eating disorder which has been brought on by the anti-obesity campaigns flooding Australian media and advertising.

Some children have lost up to a third of their body weight in mere months as they misunderstand health messages related to obesity.

Chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, Australia’s leading eating disorder and body image organisation, Christine Morgan, told Food Magazine the issues are only getting worse.

“I think there is a real element of truth in them [reports].

“We haven’t gathered information at this stage to say it is definitely evidence based but we certainly respect the opinions of our colleagues, paediatricians, child psychologists, who work with children and are seeing an increase in the number of critical eating disorders in children even the age of seven, resulting in hospitalisation.”

Royal Children’s Hospital chair of adolescent health Professor Susan Sawyer said children’s irrational opinion of their body, stemming from the anti-obesity campaign, is on the increase.

"When you’re older and overweight it’s a very simple message that weight loss is good for you," Sawyer said

"The difficulty with young people is that even if they are moderately overweight, they are still growing height-wise and are at risk of over-interpreting public health messages of ‘low fat is good’ to suggest that ‘no fat is better’.

"For all intents and purposes, these adolescents have anorexia nervosa in terms of how unwell they are, the distorted body image and the amount of weight loss, but they are at a normal weight.

"This is very new."

Morgan said the major problem with children receiving anti-obesity information, whether directly or indirectly, is that they are not mature enough to properly comprehend it yet.

“On of the problems is that children are black and white in understanding, so when they are being bombarded by this information that fat is bad, if you’re fat you are not good, this is concerning,” she told Food Magazine.

“They don’t understand the nuances of the messages being delivered and it is causing them stress.

“When we’re seeing little seven-year-old whose body mass index has fallen to an alarming low and their brain has started to shrink because of it, that is something we can’t ignore.”

Is it more damaging when a child’s brain is impacted by these issues, at a time when their brains are undergoing huge developments?

“Everything is more immediate with a young person,” Morgan explained to Food Magazine.

“For an adult to lose x-amount of their body weight, it can go on a while before it becomes a medical issue.

“But it is concerning that from the age of seven into the teens there is a lot of neurodevelopment going on and the brain is being affected.

“There is evidence to say that when health is restored the brain can return to normal, but we don’t know that for sure.”

According to the Butterfly Foundation, mortality rate for anorexia is around 20 per cent and the suicide rate of people with anorexia is 32 times higher than the national average.

Across Australia, 15-19 year old’s top concern is body image, an alarming 90 per cent of 12-17 year olds are on some form of diet, and these figures are only increasing.

“I think we are becoming obsessed with the obesity epidemic and taking it to mean we must diet and it is taking away from the issues of nutrition and health.,” Morgan said.

“We need to change the attitude around these restrictive diets and instead get in touch with physiological hunger and not emotional hunger so kids don’t turn to food as they get older.

“Let’s stop rewarding or punishing with food and see is as nothing but fuel for our bodies.

As the number of obese people in Australia rises, anorexia and bulimia are also increasing at the same time, but it is not the front-page news that obesity is.

“We are certainly seeing more incidents, and there is also an increase in them being reported, so that is an indication it is being de-stigmatised as well,” Morgan told Food Magazine.

“At Butterfly we are finding more and more people adopting bulimic practises, and that is a huge concern.”

The Butterfly Foundation offers telephone and email support for those with eating disorders and their family and friends.

This confidential and supportive counselling service is available on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or at support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au for more information about eating disorders visit www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

Image: Gulf News


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