When Walden Behavioral Care opened 10 years ago, it was not unusual to see patients as young as 10 years old with eating disorders. Now, it’s not unusual to see patients as young as six or seven, according to James M. Greenblatt, M.D., Medical Director of Eating Disorder Services.

Why are children so young developing eating disorders?

One reason may be the movement toward “low fat” foods that has taken place. Young people need fat in their diet for their brains to develop normally, according to Dr. Greenblatt, who added that the brain is 60% fat.

Based on his experience, Dr. Greenblatt believes the number one factor in young people developing eating disorders is their decision to become vegetarians.

Those who become vegetarians under the supervision of parents, who will ensure that their nutritional needs are being met, typically would not be at risk for developing eating disorders, but those who simply cut out meat and do not get the nutrition they need are at high risk. They tend to focus on what they’re not eating, not on what they’re eating, and end up eating potato chips and other food lacking in nutrition.

Dr. Greenblatt said parents can help by having their children take two fish oil tablets a day and by not following the “standard American diet,” from which up to 25% of calories come from soft drinks.

Highest Mortality Rate
Dr. Greenblatt said that even though eating disorders have the highest mortality rate and the highest suicide rate of any psychiatric illness, there has not been a large amount of research in the area.

“We can do so much for so many other diseases,” he said, “but for the psychiatric disease with the highest mortality rate, we have the most limited options.”

Progress is being made, however. For example, he said, research shows that adding zinc to the diet of young people with anorexia can help them regain their appetite.

The Maudsley method also is showing promising results, according to Dr. Greenblatt. The Maudsley method relies on parents taking control over the child’s eating at every meal and gradually giving control back to the child as progress is made toward recovery.

Dr. Greenblatt said that much more research is needed to learn more about the causes of eating disorders and the most effective ways of treating them.