At one primary school in the state of New South Wales the researchers discovered a number of girls aged eight to nine years who refused to eat either at home or at school. One pupil had hardly eaten any meals at school for the past six months.
Reporting on a national study the researchers - from the NSW health department - said children who deprived themselves of food became lethargic and were unable to concentrate during class or participate in sport.
The study revealed the need for a new focus on how children perceived the perfect body. While teachers tended to concentrate on good nutrition and a proper diet, the full extent of eating problems among students such as anorexia and bulimia, as well as body image, went unrecognised.
Young Australians were constantly being presented with images of fashion models on television and in teenage magazines and many believed that being beautiful was synonymous being thin.
Parents were warned that they should be careful with the messages they conveyed to children about growth and body shape. "Some girls could not care less if a friend makes a critical remark about their body, whereas others reacted with unwise dieting," one of the researchers said.
As a result of the study, the NSW department of education is to introduce a new programme to teach all primary school children about eating disorders and the significance of body image.