Eating disorders are psychological conditions that influence one’s relationship with food. They impact normal eating behavior and affect how a person thinks about food and their body.
Eating disorders can have serious physical and emotional consequences and, in some cases, require treatment from a medical and mental health professional. They can also be hard to diagnose, especially in children. Weight loss may be assumed to be a result of a growth spurt, changes in activity level, picky eating, or experimentation with food choices. By learning more about eating disorders, you can take the right steps to support your child.
So, what are eating disorders, what are the warning signs, and what can be done about it?
Common Eating Disorders
Anorexia nervosa (or AN) is a disorder of limiting the amount or variety of food eaten, leading to a below expected body weight. Those with anorexia nervosa often have an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted view of their body.
Children who are or have been overweight may have a delay in diagnosis. They may have the symptoms of anorexia nervosa but, even with weight loss, may not be underweight. Not only is the diagnosis more likely to be missed by caregivers and medical providers, but these adolescents often receive tremendous praise for their initial weight loss.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder (or BED) is the most common eating disorder - especially among adolescents. Binge eating episodes mean eating a lot more food than what is typical for most people in a short amount of time. A child with binge eating disorder also feels like they cannot stop eating and has no control over it. These episodes happen at least once per week for three months. Because kids can feel shame about their binge episodes, eating may be done in secret or late at night, or evidence of a binge may be hidden. These children do not usually engage in behaviors such as vomiting, misusing laxatives, or exercising excessively.
Rates of binge eating disorder are similar for all genders, and it does not discriminate based on race or ethnicity. Studies show that binge eating may predict future depression, obesity, and substance abuse.
Bulimia nervosa is a disorder in which someone has episodes of binge eating similar to those described above. However, these individuals also try to make up for their binge eating by doing things to lose weight or prevent weight gain. These behaviors can include vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively, and they occur at least once per week for three months.
Although each disorder has slightly different warning signs, look for these signs in any child, especially if they persist for more than two weeks:
- Avoiding certain foods or food groups
- Spending a lot of time in front of the mirror
- Excessively focusing on body shape or weight (frequent weighing)
- Exercising to an extreme degree
- Making frequent comparisons to others
- Consistently disappearing after meals
- Feeling shame or embarrassment around foods they eat
- Eating alone or in secret
- Making comments like, “I’m full,” “I’m not hungry,” or “I just ate.”
- Increased focus on nutrition facts, calories, or ingredients
What To Do
Help your child develop a healthy relationship with food and their body:
- Develop routines with regular meals and snacks throughout the day. Help your child prepare adequate, well-balanced meals. Incorporate a variety of foods into your child’s diet. Enjoy meals together as a family.
- Discuss the importance of food: energy for a big game, connection during the holidays, or celebration of cultural traditions.
- Notice how you talk about food. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Statements like, “Eating late at night makes you gain weight,” or “Are you sure you want to eat that donut? It’s full of sugar!” can make children more anxious about food.
- Model positive self-talk around body image. Instead of criticizing aspects of your own body, of your child’s body, or of other people’s bodies, talk about your favorite thing about your body. Help your child notice their favorite aspects of their body, such as, “My legs are strong and allow me to run fast” or “I like how my hair looks in braids.”
If you think your child may be showing signs of an eating disorder:
- Start a conversation with your child privately and away from distractions. Download our conversation starters below.
- Sit with your child during meals to provide supervision and support.
- Talk with your child’s school to ensure they are eating lunch.
- Monitor your child’s social media use.
- Call your child’s pediatrician and share your concerns with them.
- Set up an appointment with a therapist or counselor.
If you're concerned that your child may have an eating disorder, download these steps to start a conversation about it.