Almost 600 children below the age of 13 have been treated in hospital for eating disorders in the past three years, new figures have revealed.
The statistics include 197 children between the ages of five and nine – with cases within this age group almost doubling over the period.
Experts blamed the trend on a “pernicious” celebrity culture which glorified size zero figures, leaving increasing numbers of young girls struggling to cope with their growing bodies.
The figures, from 35 NHS hospitals in England, show more than 2,100 children were treated for eating disorders before they reached their sixteenth birthday.
They include 98 children aged between five and seven at the time of treatment and 99 aged eight or nine. Almost 400 were between the ages of 10 and 12, while more than 1,500 were aged 13 to 15.
Even these statistics, disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, are likely to be an underestimate.
Some NHS hospitals treating such patients refused to provide any data, while among the 35 hospitals, some would only disclose the figures for those children admitted to wards after becoming dangerously emaciated – excluding those undergoing psychiatric therapy as outpatients.
Susan Ringwood, chief executive of eating disorders charity B-eat said the figures reflected alarming trends in society, with young children “internalising” messages from celebrity magazines, which idealised the thinnest figures.
“A number of factors combine to trigger eating disorders; biology and genetics play a large part in their development, but so do cultural pressures, and body image seems to be influencing younger children much more over the past decade,” she added.
Research carried out by the charity with the Brownies found that even by the age of seven, girls who looked at outline drawing of women thought the thinner ones were happier and more popular than those with slightly larger outlines.
Mrs Ringwood said young girls felt increasingly frightened by the prospect of gaining weight in puberty. She said: “Children are receiving very pernicious messages.
“The ideal figure promoted for women these days is that of a girl, not an adult women. Girls see the pictures in magazines of extremely thin women and think that is how they should be.
“That can leave them fearful of puberty, and almost trying to stave it off.”
In 2009, Kate Moss, the supermodel, was accused of encouraging girls to become anorexic when she said she lived by the phrase ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ – a mantra of pro-anorexic groups.
While disorders among men are increasing, cases involving boys were often sparked by specific incidents, such as being bullied because of their weight, she said.
Separate research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year suggests one in five children diagnosed with an eating disorder have a history of early feeding problems, such as fussy eating.
Almost half of those diagnosed with disorders by the age of 12 had a close family member with a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression.
The study by the University College London’s Institute of Child Health found more than 80 per cent of cases involved girls, with anorexia – which involves drastically reducing the intake of food and drink – far more common than bulimia – which involves sufferers binge eating and then making themselves sick.
Last year a survey of women suffering from anorexia found almost half said they had a problem with food by the age of 10.
Experts say there is no clear relationship between “fussy eating” and the later development of a disorder.
But Mrs Ringwood said some particular behaviours with food – such as cutting it into tiny pieces, or insisting that foods were eaten separately, could indicate early signs of a more significant problem.
Other types of behaviour which had nothing to do with food could provide some clues, she said.
“If children become very rigid in their routines and get upset if changes are made that can be an indicator of the type of anxiety associated with disorders,” she said.
Even young children who were trying to restrict their diet could be stealthy about it, she said, hiding food up their sleeves at mealtimes, in order to throw it away.