Skip to main content

Scared to Eat

Eating disorders are showing up in kids as young as elementary school ages. Learn to recognize the warning signs.

In this article, you will find:

It Starts So Young
What Can Parents Do?

It Starts So Young

Scared to Eat

Young children are at war with their bodies. They are frightened of food. Food will make them FAT! Preschool girls are telling their mothers they want to go on diets.

Elementary schoolchildren are counting the fat grams in their cafeteria food. Six-year-old children are being diagnosed as anorexic.

Eating disorders were once the domain of teenagers and collegiate women. These days, preteens and young children have joined the ranks of those obsessed with their bodies' size and shape. David Herzog, M.D., director of the Harvard Eating Disorders Center at Massachusetts General Hospital says, "We're seeing more kids under ten with eating disorders."

The seeds of future eating disorders can be planted at a very tender age. Eating disorders specialists warn us that the four-year-old who hates her fat body can easily become the nine-year-old who diets and then the eleven-year-old who suffers from anorexia. We're teaching little girls, and increasingly, little boys to be scared and embarrassed by anything other than a thin body.

Studies document alarming trends

  • A Swansea University study revealed over a quarter of children between ages five to seven desired weight loss; one out of six was already dieting.

  • A Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center study of 300 children found 29 percent of third grade boys and 39 percent of third grade girls had dieted. Sixty percent of sixth grade girls and 31 percent of sixth grade boys had tried losing weight.

  • Ten to 15 years ago, studies showed that 80 percent of girls began dieting by age 14.

  • A recent study of California girls found that 80 percent of nine year-old girls had already dieted.

Why so much younger?

What has caused children to fear getting fat at younger ages than past generations?

Experts cite the constant media barrage equating thinness with attractiveness and parents' obsessiveness with their own dieting, exercising, weight, and appearance. Kids hear their folks complain ashamedly that they "have to lose weight soon," and that they "can't stand being this fat."

Early warning signals

How can you tell if your child is becoming preoccupied and worried about her/his weight and body shape? Here are some early warning signs:

  1. Constant talking about her/his body, usually in a negative manner.

  2. Continually wearing oversize, heavy clothing and never revealing her/his body.

  3. Eating very little and skipping meals.

  4. Consistent weight loss.

  5. Frequent, intensive exercising.

  6. Always asking how much fat is in food.

  7. Asking you to buy only non-fat, low fat, or diet foods.

  8. Trying to look like the ultra-thin models in TV ads and magazines.

Join the Family

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.