04/17/2011 05:52 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2011

The Rise of Childhood Eating Disorders

The Daily Mail recently reported that children as young as six have been hospitalised after suffering the effects of anorexia and other eating disorders. According to child health experts, youngsters have been admitted for treatment after they have either refused to eat, used laxatives to expunge food or forced themselves to be sick after bingeing.

Researchers from University College London's Institute of Child Health discovered a shocking 208 cases of 'early onset' eating disorders among the under-13s in a 14-month study period.

This follows a recent report in Australia's Herald Sun that revealed children as young as seven are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Equally as alarming, The Children's Hospital at Westmead's eating disorders clinic in Sydney, which specialises in working with people aged seven to 17, has experienced a 270 per cent increase in admissions since 2000.

Dr. Dasha Nicholls, lead researcher of the UK study which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, said 'Unfortunately, many eating disorder services are aimed specifically at adolescents. Childhood eating disorders are not quick or easy to treat. For a minority of children it may be the start of a severe and enduring illness, with death rates comparable to some forms of leukaemia."

According to the study, about three in every 100,000 children under 13 in the UK and Ireland has some sort of eating disorder.

This disturbing rise in childhood eating disorders means parents and carers need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to identifying the early warning signs. Schools could also benefit from educating teachers of primary school aged children about eating disorders and the behaviours that indicate the presence of an eating issue, as well as implementing awareness campaigns for parents.

In my book "Why Can't I Look the Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues" there is a chapter dedicated to the early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as "normal" behaviour -- unless you know what to look for. The most common warning signs in children are a determined refusal of food, denying hunger or being intolerant of certain types of food. This often escalates to hostile behaviour and arguments around the dinner table.

There are also warning signs before the warning signs. If a child is constantly complaining of headaches and tiredness, or appears to have trouble coping at school, this could indicate there is something deeper going on. Emotional issues, including feelings of inadequacy, often manifest as physical ailments, so stay aware of any symptoms that persist or behaviour that indicates difficulty coping, such as negative commments ("everybody hates me"), unexplained mood swings or falling behind in class.

Becoming vigilant about the early warning signs means there is a very real chance of catching the behaviour before it spirals into an eating disorder.

Here are five tips for parents and carers:

1. Eat with your child as often as you can so that you become familiar with their eating habits.
2. Watch for changes in those habits, especially anything that appears unusually strict and lasts for several weeks.
3. Listen to the language your child uses around food. If they start talking about diets or calories, or complain that they are fat (when they're not) this is a red flag.
4. Watch for a change in disposition. If your child displays hostility around meal times, they could be experiencing internal conflict towards food.
5. If your child eats large amounts of food constantly but doesn't realise how much they are eating and/or aren't enjoying it, especially during times of stress, this could indicate obsessive eating.

In the event your child begins to display an aversion towards food and changes in their eating patterns, seek medical advice as soon as possible so that they get the right treatment without delay. Early intervention is critical in reframing the mindset before it becomes entrenched.