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Early childhood GI experiences linked to teenage disordered eating

child stomach pain


Children who suffer abdominal pain between the ages of seven and nine may be more likely to develop disordered eating as teenagers. 

Gastrointestinal (GI) issues and the associated pain in early childhood may be a risk factor for later food avoidance and associated eating disorders, research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders has suggested.

Abdominal pain affects around 10% of schoolchildren between the ages of five and sixteen. It is the most common GI complaint in childhood and usually has no identifiable disease pathology. In addition, record numbers of young people are now being referred to NHS eating disorder services.

The study was led by a team at the University of Oxford and used data from the ‘Children of the 90s’ long-term health research project based in the UK, which has followed the health and development of 14,000 children since the early 1990s. The researchers analysed the frequency of childhood GI issues at ages seven to nine and recorded the correlation of subsequence patterns of teenage fasting. 

Dr Kate Stein, lead author of the study at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The factors behind eating disorders are complex, but our findings suggest that for some patients, recurrent abdominal pain in childhood may precede and contribute to later problems.’

The researchers suggested children may become fearful of GI pain they experienced when they were younger and start to avoid foods associated with that pain, starting a trajectory of unhelpful eating habits. 

The findings also indicate that the severity of the GI pain experienced in childhood, rather than frequency of pain, may be more important to long-term outcomes and the likelihood of experiencing disordered eating patterns. 

Dr Stein said: ‘As a doctor, I have noticed that a number of our teenage patients with anorexia nervosa suffered from painful GI problems in childhood such, as abdominal pain or constipation.’ 

The researchers hope that by enquiring about a history of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in all patients with eating disorders, clinicians would be able to identify patients whose childhood pain may have contributed to their food avoidance and tailor their treatment plan accordingly.

Dr Stein added: ‘Similarly, by assessing disordered eating in patients with gastrointestinal problems, we may be able to prevent unhelpful eating patterns as they grow up.’