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When Your Child Shows Signs of an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders are on the rise in the U.S. and throughout the world. Of all ages, teens are the most likely to get an eating disorder. Eating disorders can seriously harm your child’s health. They can also lead to other emotional and physical problems. Your child will likely show signs of problem eating before a full-blown eating disorder develops. This sheet can help you spot disordered eating patterns in your child. This can help you get treatment for your child as early as possible so you can protect your child’s health.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is an eating problem that strongly focuses on weight and appearance. It causes abnormal eating patterns and changes in other behavior. Eating problems often involve:
Eating very large or very small amounts of food
Throwing up or purging food after eating
Exercising a lot
Abusing certain medicines like diuretics and laxatives
Types of eating disorders
The most common eating disorders are:
Anorexia nervosa. Eating so little that body weight is well below normal. It often involves a lot of exercise to keep weight down.
Bulimia nervosa. Throwing up or purging after eating to stop weight gain. It often involves a lot of exercise to keep weight down.
Even if a child’s eating problems don’t fit the definition of either of these 2 diagnoses, he or she may still have an eating disorder. Problems like these are known as an “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” For instance, a child may eat a lot of food without purging it after. This is known as binge eating disorder. These disorders can be very serious. So if your child shows any signs of problem eating, reach out to a healthcare provider right away.
Do both boys and girls get eating disorders?
Girls by far have the most problem with eating disorders. But boys can also get them. In fact, binge eating disorder affects almost the same number of boys as girls.
What causes eating disorders?
No one really knows what causes eating disorders. Certain things can make your child more likely to get one. These include:
Having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder
Being a teen or in the early 20s
Taking part in a sport or activity that focuses on weight or appearance (such as modeling, wrestling, dance, gymnastics, diving, or long-distance running)
Needing to be perfect all the time
Having some other mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder
What are the signs to watch for?
Most teens have issues with how they look. Teens also tend to have issues around eating. But there are signs you can watch for that may signal a problem. If you notice any of these signs, talk to your child’s healthcare provider about treatment:
Constant dieting and trying fad diets (such as liquid diets), or reading lots of diet books
Staying away from certain foods or making a sudden change in diet (such as becoming a vegetarian overnight)
Suddenly eating less food
Making food but not eating it, or eating only a very small amount
Not wanting to eat with family or friends
Going to the bathroom often after meals
Rapid weight gain or loss
Constant talk about weight
Constant checking of weight
Negative talk about a specific body part
Fear of gaining weight
Lots of exercise
Seeming to take many showers (to hide sounds of throwing up)
Taking diet pills or laxatives
Change in relationship with peers
Interest in pro-eating-disorder websites (websites that promote eating disorders)
Muscle wasting and weakness
Brittle hair and nails
Dry and yellowish skin
Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
Treating eating problems
If you think your child has a problem, it’s best to act now. This is better than waiting until the problem gets worse and harder to treat. Early treatment can also help prevent harm to your child’s health. If your child shows signs of an eating problem, talk about your concerns with him or her and take your child to see a healthcare provider. The healthcare provider can talk to and examine your child. Then, you, your child, and the healthcare provider can talk about treatments. Treatment will depend on how serious an eating disorder your child has. Work closely with your child’s healthcare providers to follow any treatment plan that is advised.
Tips for parents
These tips can help make disordered eating less likely. They will also help you catch an eating problem earlier:
Have family meals as often as you can. If your child has disordered eating, have sit-down family meals every night you can. Require that your child be there at meals.
Encourage activities that are not linked to food or weight that your child finds rewarding. This may include learning a new skill, developing a hobby, or volunteering.
Be a good role model when it comes to food. Don't glamorize or demean certain body types. Don't binge eat or constantly diet yourself.
Don't speak critically about your child’s weight or look, your own weight or appearance, or the weight of others. Praise your child for his or her accomplishments and behaviors, rather than how he or she looks.
Pay attention to your child’s behavior and food intake. Be alert for signs of a problem. Don't wait to talk about your concerns with your child and a healthcare provider.
Online Medical Reviewer:
Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer:
Paul Ballas MD
Online Medical Reviewer:
Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed:
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