Eating disorders used to be a concern reserved for parents of teenage girls, but that’s no longer the case. As more and more children—both boys and girls—develop eating disorders at younger ages, parents must add this to their pantheon of potential problems.

“Body dissatisfaction and obsession with food is (becoming) more commonplace in childhood,” says Theresa Chesnut, a primary eating disorder therapist at Castlewood Treatment Centers. “Recent studies indicate 80 percent of fourth grade girls have been on a diet. There is a growing trend of children growing up in households in which they are the third generation of eating-disordered individuals. It is not uncommon for adolescents and adults who first experienced struggles with food and binge eating as a child to seek treatment for anorexia or bulimia.”

Signs of disordered eating include: marked weight changes or fluctuations, failure to gain weight, excessive exercise, a preoccupation with food and weight, avoidance of family mealtimes, self-critical comments, and withdrawal from friends and social activities.

Eating disorders, which may involve self-starvation (anorexia), purging after eating (bulimia) and binge eating, often go hand-in-hand with other psychological problems. Kids who develop eating disorders should be screened for anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If not identified and treated, these mental illnesses can complicate eating disorder recovery.

Genetics may play a role in the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, notes Dr. Kimberli McCallum, CEO, medical director and founder of McCallum Place Eating Disorders Treatment Programs. “Addiction pathways of the brain may be activated and maintained by eating disorder behaviors such as binge eating, vomiting and excessive exercise in a way that is similar to alcohol addiction. Once established, these pathways may increase likelihood of engaging in other addictive behaviors and cross-vulnerability may occur.”

Physical effects of eating disorders also may be serious and long-lasting. Gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and metabolic conditions may develop as a result of malnutrition. Dehydration is a common direct effect, and cognitive changes, sleep problems and hormonal fluctuations also may occur.

“Treatment must address the eating disorder symptoms, as well as psychological, biological, interpersonal and cultural forces that contribute to the eating disorder,” McCallum says. “Malnutrition must be addressed directly because it can cause brain and behavioral changes that interfere with treatment. Nutrition counseling can be very helpful and typically focuses on restoring flexibility and structure to meal time.” She adds that many patients respond well to outpatient psychotherapy in individual, family and group settings.

“Early intervention is the key to complete recovery,” Chesnut says. “In some cases, when behaviors are out of control and unable to be managed at an outpatient level or a person is in medical danger and their life is being affected by the illness (in other words, missing school or work, unable to concentrate, etc.) a higher level of care may be necessary, which could be a residential setting or an inpatient hospital setting.”

No matter how treatment is delivered, it is imperative to work with professionals who have experience in treating with a comprehensive team approach, Chestnut adds. McCallum sums up: “Letting go of an eating disorder is hard work, but with the right treatment team and family involvement, recovery is attainable.”