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Children and Eating Disorders

Dr. Ashok Kumar

"Ideal" portrayed by ultrathin models and entertainers is usually impossible and certainly not healthy for most people. Eating disorders have also been related to feelings of poor self-esteem, helplessness or ineffectiveness.


Why are eating disorders becoming common amongst the children as well as the adults? Emphasis is being laid on a slim figure to look beautiful. The whole idea of beauty needs to be changed. From the time the child develops an understanding, he is being taught or rather he observes that looking good means being thin. Though eating disorders are common in both s*x*s have a higher incidence in females, especially of adolescent age. Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia) usually begin in adolescence. Young women with anorexia nervosa relentlessly pursue thinness through extreme dieting, often combined with excessive exercise and vomiting. They see themselves as fat, even in advanced stages of emaciation. Bulimia involves a cycle of binge eating, often triggered by feelings of anger, anxiety, depression and loneliness, followed by purging the unwanted calories through vomiting, abuse of laxatives, fasting or excessive exercise.

Teenagers are bombarded by messages that thin is beautiful and fat is socially unacceptable. The "ideal" portrayed by ultrathin models and entertainers is usually impossible and certainly not healthy for most people.

Eating disorders have also been related to feelings of poor self-esteem, helplessness or ineffectiveness. These feelings may be related to family dysfunction when children's emotional needs are not being addressed because of family problems. From a young age, girls learn to link their self-worth with appearance. Some act on these beliefs and go to damaging lengths to change their bodies, seeking a sense of self-control that temporarily relieves the initial problem.

Parents, educators and others must create an environment that celebrates a variety of body shapes and sizes, and reinforces healthy eating instead of dieting.

Anorexia nervosa and compulsive eating are the most common among such young children, but there are cases of bulimia being reported. It is now seen that many nine year olds have already dieted and we are beginning to see four and five year olds expressing the need to diet.

Children may also develop eating disorders as a way of dealing with the many emotions that they feel, especially if they are raised in a home that does not allow feelings to be expressed. Children who are compulsive eaters are usually using food to help them deal with feelings of anger, sadness, hurt, loneliness, abandonment, fear and pain. If children are not allowed to express their emotions, they may become emotional eaters. Also, if parents are too involved in their own problems, the child may turn to food for comfort.

Children are at a risk for developing an eating disorder if the parents themselves are to preoccupied with appearance and weight. If the parents are constantly dieting and expressing dislike towards their own bodies, the child will receive the message that appearance is very important. In some families the parents mistake baby fat for actual fat and may try to impose a diet on the child. In some families there is a double standard when it comes to boys and girls, especially in our Indian society. The family may encourage the boy to eat so that he can become big and strong, but discourage the girl from having seconds or having dessert so that she will have a petite and slim figure. Once again, the child is given the message that being thin is important. Many mothers give the message to their daughters that the only way they will be happy and find a man, is if they are thin. In today's society it's hard enough for young children to grow to love and accept their bodies because of the importance society places on being thin, but it is much harder if the parents themselves express dissatisfaction for the child's appearance or if they are encouraging weight loss.

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