By Anita Guidera
A troubled grandmother recently contacted a North Dublin therapy centre to voice her concerns that her two-year-old granddaughter may be showing early signs of having an eating disorder.
Extreme, perhaps, but there is mounting evidence that the age profile of young people displaying symptoms of eating distress is dropping, and the numbers of people with eating disorders are on the rise.
A recent study in the UK revealed that children as young as five years old were being treated in British hospitals for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
While it is estimated that up to 200,000 people in Ireland suffer from eating disorders, health professionals believe the number may be much higher and all are concerned about the ever younger age profile.
Teresa Moorhead, director of clinical services and founder of Lois Bridges in Sutton, a privately run residential and outpatient unit for sufferers of eating disorders over the age of 18, believes the number is higher.
"This is an old statistic. If they were to look at it again, I would stay that figure has doubled, given the amount of inquiries I am getting. I am also receiving a massive number of phone calls from mothers worried about young children.
"I have heard of somebody as young as five presenting at a children's hospital but certainly children of seven and eight are now turning up," she said.
Marie Campion, founder of the privately run Marino Therapy Centre, a day facility which treats children as well as adults suffering from eating disorders, said that with younger children, much of the work is with the parents.
"You need to re-educate the family. Little children are losing connection with the body and often they emotionally overeat, they put on weight and then lose too much but ideally a child should not be brought into therapy before the age of 10. It is better to work with the parents.
"There really is no simple answer here but I think there is not enough emphasis on the emotional part that is contributing to eating distress," she said.