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  • Writer's pictureAlexander James

Why Are Eating Disorders On The Rise Among Young People?

It’s estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and the waiting times for treatment are getting longer. In particular, the number of young people and children requiring hospitalisation for conditions such as anorexia and bulimia has more than doubled over the past few years.

Eating Disorder Awareness Week runs from 26 February to 3 March this year, with the aim of raising awareness of these complex conditions. Some eating disorders such as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) are driven by a strong fear or disorder of certain types of foods, or a general lack of interest in food and eating.

Other types of eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia are characterised by a fear of gaining weight, or using restricted eating as a means to gain a sense of control. It’s a complicated condition that is not just about looking thinner, but often has emotional drivers such as perfectionism, stressful life experiences, or obsessive compulsive behaviours.

Although eating disorders are triggered by mental health issues, they can have potentially very serious consequences for physical health. Severe undereating puts strain on every major organ in the body, increasing the risk of kidney and heart failure, and causing dry brittle skin and hair loss. In the most severe cases, they can be fatal.

Some research suggests that the roots of eating disorders may lie in the earliest influences of our childhood. One study surveyed girls and boys between the ages of three and five, asking the children to choose an image that represented positive or negative characteristics from a range of thinner or larger figures.

The researchers found that the children chose larger images to represent traits such as meanness and vulnerability to teasing, and smaller body shapes to represent traits such as kindness and popularity. They found that the children were also influenced by their own parent’s attitude to body size, and the traits were more marked as children grew older.

The study found that by the age of six, girls in particular had internalised the wider attitudes of society towards body shapes, and understood the concept of dieting to obtain an ideal body size or shape. 

It’s thought that the influence of the media or peer pressure doesn’t cause eating disorders, but they do play a role in keeping them going once they have taken a hold. 

The unconscious influence of parents' attitude to their own weight may be a factor, particularly if children hear their mothers talking about dieting or needing to lose weight. Parents may unintentionally trigger an eating disorder through teasing or critical comments about their child’s appetite or size. 

There are a range of treatments that are recommended for eating disorders, including cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapies, or other approaches designed to tackle the underlying drivers such as obsessive compulsive disorder or anxiety. 

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