Does My Child Have an Eating Disorder?

            Worried parents may find themselves on their computer, tablet or phone late at night researching eating disorders with troublesome thoughts. Eating disorders involve disturbances in eating behaviors, such as an extreme decrease in food take or severe overeating, in addition to heightened concerns about body shape or weight. No single population, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioecomic status, race or ethnicity is immune to eating disorders. The risk always exists. Common eating disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

We currently live in a culture that is making it more difficult for families to identify eating disorder symptoms in their loved ones, as disordered eating is becoming more prevalent and positively reinforced through the various forms of media. According to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) reported eating disorder symptoms are beginning earlier in both males and females. Below are some signs that your child may be suffering from an eating disorder.

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Drastic Changes in Weight

As an eating disorder professional, I prefer not to focus on one’s weight during treatment. However, dramatic weight loss or weight gain can be an indicator of a presenting eating disorder. For younger children suffering from eating disorders, weight may not be where it should be for height. For adolescent females, change in weight can lead to delayed onset of menses or secondary amenorrhea. 

Avoidance of Mealtime

Family meal gatherings encourage physiological, emotional and behavioral health. If your child or adolescent is consistently making excuses or avoid mealtime or situations involving food, this may be a sign. Foods that your child used to enjoy on a regular basis may be turned away or labeled “unhealthy”. He or she may cut food into very small pieces, move food around the plate to avoid eating and appear anxious. Obsessions about how foods are prepared, nutrition label reading and portion sizes are also behaviors to look for. 

Disappearing Food from the Home
Those with bulimia or binge eating disorder may hide food in their rooms and secretly consume food when no one is around. According to The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, a binge usually involves an individual eating large quantities of food with a lack of control and sometimes secretively/alone. Because it is typically done alone, parents may not realize their kid’s weight gain is a result of binging. Signs of bulimia include compensatory mechanisms such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, and over-exercising coupled with feelings of guilt or shame about eating. 

Following a New Diet or Meal Plan
Sudden implementation of a diet or “healthy meal plan” may warrant concern. It is common for kids with eating disorders to utilize fad diets, veganism, and vegetarianism with an intention to lose weight. By following diets, it gives one a reason to skip meals and excuses to not have certain foods at gatherings.

Increased Attention on Body Image

If you find that your child or adolescent is spending a lot of time in the mirror, changing outfits excessively or an increase in weighing themselves, this may be a cause for concern. It is not uncommon for young people to feel self-conscious, especially during times when hormonal changes are causing the body to physically change and mature. However, purposely isolating from social engagements, such as pool parties, and wearing clothing to hide one’s body can be a sign that there is a deeper problem.

Mood Changes

Sometimes an eating disorder co-occurs with a mood disorder. Additionally, a malnourished brain can cause lack of energy, fatigue and changes in brain chemistry that can cause a person to isolate and not act like themselves. Their grades may begin to worsen in school. They may begin to turn down social engagement invitations from school friends and extracurricular activities. 

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For parents of children with eating disorders, professional help is here. Skilled professionals who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders can address the nutritional, psychological and medical needs of your child or adolescent. Kids are often unable or unwilling to express what they struggle with emotionally and professional help may be the answer.