The isolation, stress, and excessive time on social media during the pandemic have caused eating disorders to rise in children and teenagers. Almost 3% of children in the United States suffer from an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia.
As a parent, it is essential to recognize when our kids may be dealing with these issues. Some signs that could help you identify an eating disorder may include:
- Change in how much, what, and when they eat
- Becoming restrictive about their diet
- Having unusual weight fluctuations
- Expressing unhappiness with their body image
- Excessive exercising
- Spending too much time in the bathroom
Just like any other mental health condition, an eating disorder is not a matter of choice. Even if you have the smallest doubt that your child may be facing this type of challenge, it is vital to have a conversation with them and your doctor.
Eating disorders in children can encompass a range of conditions, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, and persistent efforts to restrict food intake, leading to severe weight loss.
If your child is experiencing any of the following signs, they may be struggling with anorexia.
- Excessive dieting or extreme food restriction
- Having an intense fear of becoming fat even when they are underweight
- Constantly expressing dissatisfaction with their body shape and size
- Withdrawal from social activities with friends and family
- Avoiding situations that involve food
- Physical symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, hair loss, or irregular menstrual periods
Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating, followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the misuse of laxatives.
If your child is experiencing any of the following signs, they may be struggling with bulimia.
- Recurrent episodes of binge eating, characterized by consuming large amounts of food in a short period.
- Regular use of compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as fasting, exercising excessively, self-inducing vomiting, or misusing laxatives or diuretics.
- Intense preoccupation with body shape.
- Physical symptoms like dental erosion, swollen glands, electrolyte imbalances, or irregular menstrual periods.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period. Unlike bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder does not involve compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise.
If your child is experiencing any of the following signs, they may be struggling with binge eating disorder.
- Recurrent episodes of consuming excessive amounts of food in short periods
- Eating more rapidly than usual or until uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food even when not hungry
- Eating alone
- No regular use of compensatory behaviors to counteract the binge eating, like self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a mental health condition where children struggle to meet their nutritional needs because they have selective eating patterns or avoid specific foods.
Unlike anorexia or bulimia, ARFID is not driven by concerns about body weight. However, it can lead to developmental and nutritional issues if left untreated.
If your child is experiencing any of the following signs, they may be struggling with ARFID.
- Not gaining the appropriate weight for their age
- Nutritional deficiencies, such as anemia or low bone density
- Dependence on nutritional supplements
- Persistent lack of interest in food
- Avoidance of specific food textures, colors, or smells without concern for their body shape or weight
Eating disorders are not caused by a specific factor. Stressful events, environment, and genetics all play an essential role in a child’s body image.
Some factors that could increase the risk of an eating disorder include:
- Having a poor body image or focusing too much on weight and looks
- Dieting at a young age
- Playing sports that focus on body weight, like gymnastics, ballet, ice skating, and wrestling
- Having a family member with an eating disorder
- Dealing with mental health problems such as anxiety or depression
Experience shows us that early identification and treatment of eating disorders in children leads to better outcomes. If you notice any concerning symptoms, please ask your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health specialist.
Comprehensive treatment for addressing eating disorders may involve:
- Nutrition counseling: Counseling restores a balanced relationship with food and ensures adequate nutritional intake. A registered dietitian may work closely with the child to create a personalized meal plan, addressing specific dietary needs and preferences.
- Medical care: Monitoring and addressing the physical consequences of eating disorders is essential. Regular check-ups, laboratory tests, and assessments of vital signs help track the child's overall health.
- Talk therapy: Psychotherapy is vital in treating the underlying psychological aspects of eating disorders. It provides a safe space for children to explore the emotional triggers behind their eating behaviors, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and improve self-esteem.
- Medication management: Medication may be prescribed to address co-occurring mental health conditions commonly associated with eating disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).