Kids as young as 9 in the US are dieting and making themselves sick to lose weight, study finds

  • A study of almost 12,000 children across the US found that 5 per cent of participants engaged in binge eating and 2.5 per cent were excessively exercising or dieting
  • Scientists say identifying ‘disordered eating behaviours’ in childhood can provide clues about those who are most at risk of developing an eating disorder
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The study also found kids with a higher body mass index (BMI) were more likely to engage in behaviours to prevent weight gain. Photo: Shutterstock

Kids as young as nine are dieting and vomiting to try to lose weight, research suggests.

A study of almost 12,000 kids across the US, published as a research letter in JAMA paediatrics on Monday, found that 5 per cent engaged in binge eating, and 2.5 per cent had behaviours to try to avoid weight gain, such as excessive exercise or dieting.

Eating disorders, that include anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, usually begin as a teen, and are rare and difficult to detect in kids, according to the researchers.

Why TikTok’s latest #bodychecking trends are bad for you

However, identifying so-called “disordered eating behaviours” in childhood can provide clues about who is most at risk of developing an eating disorder, the study authors said.

“The first major takeaway is that these behaviours are more common than we’ve seen before,” Dr. Stuart Murray, the study lead author and the Della Martin associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California,said in a statement.

“The earlier we can detect these behaviours, the more likely we are to be able to treat them,” Murray, who is also director of Keck’s eating disorders programme, said.

Some common signs of an eating disorder include restricting one’s food intake severely, refusing to eat certain foods or whole food groups, and visiting the bathroom immediately after meals on a frequent basis. Photo: Shutterstock

Take boys with disordered eating behaviours seriously

Around 28 million Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

To understand the scope of disordered eating among kids, the researchers analysed data from 11,878 kids, aged 9 to 10, collected between 2016 and 2018 through the largest, long-term study of brain development and children’s health in the US. The study was funded by the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

The research relied on parent reports of disordered eating behaviour. While that leaves room for error, Murray said the data revealed various common themes showing who is most at-risk – and that we need to broaden our understanding of who needs help.

“We tend to think that eating disorders predominantly afflict girls, but there’s more and more data showing that boys struggle just as much,” Murray said, adding: “This is a call to arms to make sure we’re taking those cases seriously.”

How to help a male friend with an eating disorder

Early puberty and high BMI are risk factors – but eating disorders are ‘much more complex’ than BMI

Dr B. Timothy Walsh, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre, who was not involved in the study, said parents should take note of the researcher’s finding that puberty is a critical time for kids’ body image. Catching subtle signs of an eating disorder at that time, and intervening sensitively, can be a game changer.

The study also found kids with a higher body mass index (BMI) were more likely to engage in behaviours to prevent weight gain, in particular.

“Paediatricians and middle schools may choose to increase monitoring and screening of children with high BMIs and children who begin puberty before their peers,” the researchers said.

What is body dysmorphia, and why is it so hard to spot?

As Insider previously reported, BMI – a score that uses height and weight to estimate a person’s body fat – is not always a reliable predictor of health outcomes. For example, it does not take into account whether weight is from fat or muscle, and it was created using data from white Europeans, so it cannot accurately predict health outcomes for most people.

A spokesperson from Beat, an eating disorder charity in the UK, told Insider that while the research was welcome, it probably wasn’t possible take anything definitive from the study. “Eating disorders are much more complex than BMI,” they said.

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