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Eating Disorders Skyrocket in Kids: What are the Signs?

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For young people, eating disorders are rapidly on the rise. (iStockPhoto) iStockPhoto

(CBS) While millions of kids struggle with obesity, another dangerous trend has been hiding in their midst - young kids with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, which can stunt their growth and lead to early heart attacks.

That's according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatric published in the journal Pediatrics.

The group says eating disorders in young children are rising at an alarming rate. Hospitalizations for kids younger than 12 were up 119 percent between  1999 and 2006, according to government data included in the report.

Kids with eating disorders may be malnourished, have organ damage and stunted growth. In some bulimia cases, the rapid change in electrolyte balance can cause heart attacks and sudden death.  Or, their may be no obvious signs at all.

The profile for eating disorders is also rapidly changing, according to report author Dr. David Rosen, a professor of pediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry at University of Michigan.

"The stereotype is these disorders affect teen girls from wealthy backgrounds," Rosen tells CBS News. "We are learning these are equal opportunity disorders. They affect boys, people of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Health care providers need to suspect these disorders in patients where in they would not have in the past."

Males now represent 10 percent of the eating disorder population, according to the report, which also warned that young athletes of both genders, including gymnasts, wrestlers and dancers, are at risk for "partial-syndrome eating disorders," where they display some, but not all, of the behaviors.

Researchers don't really know why some kids are prone to eating disorders and others not.  Media images of thin people and difficult family dynamics are no longer the full answer, Rosen told HealthDay.

Ironically, the obesity epidemic, may be making things worse. Pediatricians are increasingly counseling kids about nutrition. If not handled well, for some kids that can lead to obsession with controlling food intake.

"The key is to talk about body acceptance and healthy eating rather than numbers on a scale," says Marisa Sherry, a New York nutritionist who specializes in eating disorders. "If we teach kids that food is bad, they might feel judged all the time and can become obsessed with what they eat."

"Parents are vital here," she says. "Kids learn everything from them. If parents are always talking about dieting and weight obsession, kids pick up on that. Parents should focus more on health eating and exercise rather than constantly fretting over fitting into a pair of jeans or calling oneself 'fat.' That's a judgment. What we want is body acceptance and healthy lifestyle."

The good news is that eating disorders caught in childhood have a better rate of treatment success than for adults.

"If you are waiting to make the diagnosis of eating disorders in a kid that has lost a lot of weight and seems sick, you are missing the boat," says Rosen. "We need to get to this when kids are starting to diet, starting to obsess over weight. That's when we need to be suspicious. We can do a much better job intervening before kids have gotten to the malnourished state."

So what should parents look for? Read our 12 secret signs of Anorexia to learn more.