CHILDREN as young as six are suffering from eating disorders, avoiding food, making themselves sick or using laxatives to control their weight.
The first large scale study of eating disorders in the very young suggests that three in every 100,000 children in Ireland and in the UK under the age of 13 have such a disorder.
Most of the children identified in the study were girls (82pc) and one third were anorexic. One per cent of the children with an eating disorder were bulimic and a further 43pc had some other expression of the condition.
More than nine in 10 used food avoidance to control their weight and eight in 10 were considered to have a "morbid preoccupation with food".
Doctors found that 71pc of the children feared they would put on weight, 67pc were "pre-occupied" with their weight and 51pc worried about body shape.
A worrying 43pc used excessive exercise to control their weight, some children made themselves sick, were binge-eaters or took laxatives.
One of the authors of the study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, said it highlighted the need for specialist services.
"There is an urgent need to consider the needs of children with eating disorders separately and not simply lower the age range of existing adolescent services," said child psychiatrist Dr Dasha Nichols.
She pointed out that it had been thought that puberty was a trigger for eating disorders but this new study proved this was not necessarily the case.
The researchers studied children living in Ireland and the UK over a 14-month period and 208 cases of early onset eating disorders were found.
While one per cent of those children suffered from bulimia -- binge eating and vomiting -- the doctors believe this is likely to be an underestimation of this hidden eating disorder.
Doctors from University College London say their analysis supports the idea that family history of mental illness and early feeding problems may be risk factors in the development of early-onset eating disorders.
Half of the children found to have eating disorders had been admitted to hospital.
They were followed up a year later and 73pc had improved. A further 6pc were worse and 10pc were unchanged.
A small number were in hospital for most of the year.