Select your language close

Eating disorders in children can cause irreversible damage says GOSH expert

02/28/2018

Dr Lee Hudson, consultant and expert in eating disorders at Great Ormond Street Hospital, discusses why it is important for children to eat correctly and why eating disorders can be damaging to growing children. “Childhood is a time of development,” Dr Hudson explains “and children need food to help them develop correctly. Anything that affects their food intake can have irreversible affects to their bodies in the long run.” Understanding and being aware of potentially damaging food disorders is important for parents to keep their children healthy.  

Eating disorders affect 70 million individuals worldwide and 90% who have eating disorders are women between the age of 12 and 25. “Eating disorders” Dr Hudson explains, “are where difficulties with eating are due to a primary mental health illness.” Eating disorders cover a range of different disorders which are characterised by abnormal eating habits. ‘Disordered eating’ where someone may not be eating as regularly or properly as they should be is something shared by a lot of people through their lifetimes but is not the same, or as dangerous, as an eating disorder, which is linked to mental health problems. The two most common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.

A case study that was conducted across 7 Arab countries shows that those who are overweight are more likely to have an eating disorder, and that 44.7% of adolescents in Kuwait suffer from disordered eating. The results of a study of 495 girls from UAE concludes that 66% of these girls were self conscious about their weight and 33.5% of them suffer from disordered eating,  with 2 girls in the study being diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa as a result of the study. Additionally 24 of the 495 girls that were observed were shown to experience subclinical Anorexia Nervosa. Meanwhile a case study that was conducted on high school girls in Saudi Arabia shows that 24.6% of them had a high risk of having or getting a eating disorders as they scored highly on Eating Attitudes Test (EAT) when interviewed. A case study in Oman showed that 33% of the adolescent girls are inclined to Anorexic behaviour. These studies show that children across the GCC are at high risk of eating problems which can be dangerous for their health and future development.

Anorexia Nervosa is a condition “where a person believes they are overweight when they are actually thin and have a very strong drive to lose weight so that they become underweight.” Dr Hudson summarises. People suffering from anorexia may in fact be very thin but will believe that they are overweight. There are medical complications linked to Anorexia Nervosa because “people can become so underweight that they can be at risk of death.” Dr Hudson describes. When a child becomes underweight they become malnourished and it can cause permanent damage to their bodies. “This is especially the case in children and young adults with the disease as it can affect their growth, development and affect long term health such the health of their bones.” Dr Hudson continues. Young women with anorexia are 12 times more likely to die than other women the same age without the condition and 20% of people suffering from anorexia will die prematurely from complications arising from their disorder, including suicide and heart problems.

Bulimia Nervosa is another common eating disorder where the sufferer has a distorted body image. With Bulimia Nervosa there is guilt associated with eating, and people will often ‘binge eat’ (over-eat) and then ‘purge’ (throw up) afterwards. “Most people with bulimia are either at a normal weight or overweight. They will be very unhappy about their eating and body.” Dr Hudson clarifies. People with bulimia can have medical problems linked to their vomiting such as dental issues related to the erosion of enamel from vomiting and malnutrition which can cause lasting effects as a child.  

“Healthy growth in males and females requires enough food and the right types of food to work properly. Growth is not just about height and weight – it includes the development of the brain and the formation of bones.”  Dr Hudson explains. Growth can be affected when children are underweight or starving and this can be irreversible. Keeping children healthy is important for their health now and in the future. Most parents will be aware when children are losing weight at a significant rate and not eating enough. “What is harder to notice,” Dr Hudson comments “is when children become underweight or overweight because this can be gradual. This is why health checks for children can be helpful. Weight loss can happen for a range of reasons, and is not just linked to eating disorders, so if you are worried about your child’s weight you should seek the advice of a medical professional.” The earlier weight loss is noticed the sooner the reasons behind the weight loss can be understood and interventions put into place before the effects become irreversible and the condition harder to treat.

Dr Lee Hudson

Dr Lee Hudson is a consultant in general paediatrics at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Dr Hudson specialises in medical complications involved with eating and feeding disorders, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome and general paediatric conditions in infants, children and young people. Dr Hudson qualified from Sheffield University and undertook specialist training as a general paediatrician in Australia and the UK. He is also an executive member of the International Association of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Young People’s Health Special Interest Group.

Great Ormond Street Hospital in London is recognised as one of the few truly world-class hospitals for children. As a global leader, GOSH has top clinical and research experts working every day to find new and better ways to treat children. While breakthroughs and medical expertise are essential to the treatment of patients, GOSH also places great emphasis on the support and care provided for children by nurturing an open and supportive atmosphere, ensuring that parents and patients are well informed and closely involved in the treatment process. Children receive the highest standards of care and attention from the expert team of medical and support staff during their stay at GOSH, and are always treated with respect, trust, concern and openness.

Browse A-Z