Childhood eating disorder care 'urgently needed'
There is an urgent need for services to recognise and treat eating disorders in young children, say doctors.
The first study of the scale of the problem in the UK has been published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
The study of UK and Irish data suggests three in every 100,000 children under the age of 13 have an eating disorder, including children as young as six.
The charity Beat has called for more specialist treatment for young people as it could save lives.
There has been anecdotal evidence of children having eating disorders at even younger ages, but the issue had not been formally studied.
The researchers from University College London used monitoring data, collect by the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit of the Royal College of Paedaitrics and Child Health, from between March 2005 and May 2006 in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
They identified 208 cases of eating disorders in children between five and 13, with more than four in five cases being in girls.
Dr Dasha Nicholls, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said there were huge developmental differences between children and adolescents and adults.
"Unfortunately, many eating disorder services are aimed specifically at adolescents," she said.
"Our study shows 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."
She added that it had been thought that puberty could be a trigger for eating disorders, however, that did not account for these cases.
A spokesperson for the charity Beat said: "Beat welcomes this new research from UCL - and supports the call for improved diagnosis and specialist treatment for these young people.
"Although there is first class treatment available in this country for adolescents and adults with eating disorders, there is very little for those under the age of 13.
"The earlier the intervention, the better the long term prognosis for a full recovery to avoid these young lives being blighted or even lost to these serious conditions."
The Care Services Minister Paul Burstow said: "We are providing around £400m over the next four years to expand psychological therapies. Some of this funding will enable the development of stand-alone programmes that seek to extend access to these therapies for both children and young people.
"Early intervention is essential for those with eating disorders. We have been clear that GPs are expected to use NICE guidance on choosing the most appropriate treatments, from physical and psychological treatments to medicines."