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Eating Disorders in Children: Growth Spurts or Binge Eating Disorder?

Between ages two to ten years old, a child will grow at a steady pace and a final growth spurt begins at the start of puberty, sometime between ages 9 to 15. Eating patterns can mirror these growth phases with children requiring more nutrients during a growth phase therefore eating more food throughout the day and during mealtimes. This is especially true if the child is extremely active in sports. As a parent, you may feel that your child is eating you out of house and home. It is common for children to have growth spurts and increasing appetites so how do you know then if your child is engaging in binge eating behaviors or has a normal developmental appetite?  Children as young as seven years of age can be diagnosed with an eating disorder and the prevalence of eating disorders in young children have been increasing.

Defining binge eating disorder

Binge eating can be defined as when a person turns to food to cope with stressful situations. It is characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and is associated with a lack of self-control. It is possible for an individual diagnosed with binge-eating disorder to consume as much as 3,400 calories in little more than an hour, and as much as 20,000 calories in eight hours. Unlike bulimia and anorexia nervosa, there is no compensatory purging such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or laxative abuse associated with binge-eating disorder. In order for binge-eating disorder to be diagnosed an individual must partake in binging episodes on average at least once a week for a three-month duration, the individual must have feelings of marked distress over these binging episodes and have a loss of control over the amount of food they eat. Additionally, at least three of the following factors must be present:

  • Rapid eating
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward
  • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much is being eaten
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry

Children who engage in binge eating may begin to gain weight, but can sometimes be overlooked or undiagnosed due to normal weight gain among children and teens. Several signs can differentiate binge eating from healthy developmental eating.

  • Observing how much food is being eaten or is missing from the kitchen.
  • Assessing how much and how quickly your child eats as well as their pattern of eating, particularly around stressful situations, family conflict, peer rejection, or academic performance.
  • The child may feel ashamed or disgusted by the amount of food they eat.
  • Often, empty food containers or plates of food may be found in the child’s room.
  • There are noticeable irregular eating patterns that emerge.
  • The child seems to care more about his or her weight than before.

Treatment for binge eating disorder in children

Family centered interventions are most effective in younger children. “Family Based Therapy” (FBT) informed care is most the most widely used and appropriate treatment for children with eating disorders such as binge eating disorder. Therapists, nutritionists and other members of the treatment team collaborate closely allowing the parents to take charge of nutritional decisions and behavioral modification. They also work together in order to develop positive coping skills that can allow children to function normally in stressful situations so they don’t engage in unhealthy behaviors with food.

Center For Discovery