Children who over or undereat are ‘more at risk of anorexia as teens’

Children who overeat, pick at meals or are fussy when it comes to food are ‘more likely to be anorexic or binge as teenagers’

  • Children who overate were 6% more likely to binge in their late teens
  • Girls who under ate were 6% more likely to have anorexia at 16
  • Identifying at-risk children could reduce disorders via ‘targeted interventions’ 

Children who overeat, pick at meals or are fussy when it comes to food may be more at risk of eating disorders as teenagers, research suggests.

A study found ‘unhealthy’ eating habits early in life are linked to both anorexia and bingeing during adolescence, particularly among girls.

Scientists at University College London hope identifying troublesome eaters as children could help them avoid these disorders via ‘targeted interventions’.  

Children who are fussy eaters may be more at risk of eating disorders as teenagers (stock)

Study author Dr Moritz Herle said: ‘From a large robust cohort we were able to identify patterns of eating behaviours at an early age that may be potential markers of later eating disorders.

‘Our results suggest children who show high and persistent levels of fussy eating might be at increased risk of developing anorexia nervosa.

‘And children who overeat persistently are at a higher risk of binge-eating in their teenage years.’ 

Around 1.25million people in the UK have an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia or bingeing, according to Beat Eating Disorders.

And in the US, up to 4.2 per cent of women suffer from anorexia alone at some point in their lives, Eating Disorder Hope statistics show.

The researchers felt ‘childhood eating disorders have typically been studied in the context of obesity’, with other conditions receiving ‘little attention’.

They therefore analysed 4,760 people who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study. This was made up of children, and their parents, who were born in the South West between 1991 and 1992.

Information on the youngsters’ eating habits were recorded by their parents eight times from one-to-nine years old. 


Anorexia is a serious mental illnesses where a person restricts their food intake, which often causes them to be severely underweight.

Many also exercise excessively.

Some sufferers may experience periods of bingeing, followed by purging. 

Sufferers often have a distorted view of themselves and think they are larger than they really are.

Untreated, patients can suffer loss of muscle and bone strength, as well as depression, low libido and menstruation ceasing in women.

In severe cases, patients can experience heart problems and organ damage.

Behavioural signs of anorexia include people saying they have already eaten or will do later, as well as counting calories, missing meals, hiding food and eating slowly.

As well as weight loss, sufferers may experience insomnia, constipation, bloating, feeling cold, hair loss, and swelling of the hands, face and feet.

Treatment focuses on therapy and self-help groups to encourage healthy eating and coping mechanisms.

Source: Beat Eating Disorders

The children then self reported if they had an eating disorder at 16.

Results revealed the youngsters who overate during their childhood were six per cent more likely to binge in their late teens. 

This is compared to the participants with ‘low overeating’. 

Bingeing was defined as ‘eating a large amount of food at least once a week and having a feeling of loss of control during that episode’. 

And the girls who under ate were six per cent more likely to develop anorexia as adolescents. 

The same was not true for the male participants. 

Anorexia was defined as restricted food intake to achieve weight loss, as well as a fear of becoming fat and sufferers having a distorted view of themselves. 

The children who were fussy eaters, by being ‘choosy’ or refusing food, were two per cent more likely to be anorexic at 16. 

The researchers believe fussy eating may be an ‘early manifestation of later anorexia’.

Refusing food can be ‘stressful’ for parents, which may result in them pressuring their child to eat more or offering treats ‘to entice’ them, they wrote.

However, ‘parental pressure to eat’ has been linked to ‘weight and shape concerns’ in later life.

The participants’ childhood eating habits were not associated with bulimia or purging.

‘[The] findings suggest identifying children with specific eating behaviours might be a promising approach for targeted intervention to prevent progression to disordered eating and eating disorders in adolescence,’ the researchers wrote. 

Lead author Dr Nadia Micali said: ‘Our study helps us to understand who might be at risk of eating disorders and extends what we know from previous studies and form clinical observations.

‘Eating disorders are highly complex and influenced by interactions of biological, behavioural, and environmental factors.

‘And this study helps to identify some of the behavioural mechanisms behind these associations.’

Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, added: ‘This study shows that early identification and targeted intervention for disordered childhood eating may reduce the future risk of eating disorders.’

‘However more research is needed to disentangle the biological, behavioural and environmental risk factors, in order to improve health outcomes for children and teenagers.’ 

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