Children as young as eight have been treated for anorexia in the Wairarapa, District Health Board chief executive Tracey Adamson says.
People diagnosed with the disease, which falls under the umbrella of eating disorders and is defined as a mental illness, suffer from a debilitating inability to eat.
Their weight and body mass index levels plummet, causing serious health problems. If left untreated anorexia can also be fatal.
In the past year, five people under the age of 19 were referred to the board's Child and and Adolescent Mental Health Service for eating-disorder related illnesses.
Similar to autistic disorders, eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are measured on a disorder spectrum. This means symptoms vary widely between sufferers, as do the causes.
Ms Adamson told the Wairarapa Times-Age children affected by eating disorders were often better placed to receive help than adults, who were less likely to seek treatment.
"Families bring the children in whereas adults don't necessarily seek help.
"Locally, families go to GPs for help, or if the child or young person is under 19 they will go to Wairarapa DHB's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service which works with families and individuals."
She said local people also had the option of being treated at the Central Region Eating Disorder Service based in Wellington.
Her comments follow new research indicating doctors may be missing at-risk teenagers due to poor questioning about their weight-loss practices.
"This may be due to uncertainty about which questions to ask [by clinicians], specifically around whether certain weight-loss strategies are healthier or unhealthy, or about what weight-loss behaviours are more likely to lead to adverse outcomes," the report said.
"Routine assessment of weight control strategies by clinicians are warranted, particularly for meal skipping and fasting for weight loss."
Typical signs of anorexia, for which the average age of onset is 17 years, include extremely low body weight and weakness. Research has also indicated adolescents who suffer from anorexia are usually high achievers, females and involved in a variety of extra-curricular activities.
And contrary to popular belief, people who suffer from bulimia are usually a healthy weight. In many cases they can actually be overweight.
The Auckland research also highlighted risky behaviour associated with weight control, which is often symptomatic of an eating disorder.
A 2009 Youth Risk Behaviour survey found participants attempting to control their weight through vomiting, starvation and diet pills ate fewer fruits and vegetables and more high-fat foods compared to those who were not dieting or using moderate weight-control strategies.
"Skipping meals is not an effective weight-loss strategy, as available research on successful weight-loss suggests that regular meal consumption, particularly breakfast, is important in weight maintenance," the researchers said.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOUR CHILD HAS AN EATING DISORDER
Raise concerns with a GP.
Give unconditional support to your child. They may not understand why they are behaving the way they are.
Keep your child focused on any positive thoughts they have. Often these kids will shut down, stop talking to you and seem in a world of their own. Distraction and combating the negative thoughts are important.
Get support for yourself. It can feel a lonely and worrying time if your child has been diagnosed. Often friends and family try to help but talking to a professional is likely to increase your resilience and understanding about the illness.
Source: Gains Psychology and Consulting Services