Eating Disorders and Your Kids: What to Watch Out For
By Jill Gonzalez
There are a variety of social pressures that make kids, particularly teenagers, feel self-conscious about their bodies: peers, movies, magazine covers, just to name a few. All too often, the feelings of being self-conscious and insecure about their bodies lead many kids to develop eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Statistics show that kids are most likely to develop an eating disorder between the ages of 11 and 13.
Many adults erroneously believe that eating disorders are not something to be overly concerned about. The reality is that eating disorders interfere with normal daily life, cause extreme weight fluctuations, and can cause damage to vital organs and bodily functions. Eating disorders ultimately lead to physical and emotional damage, and if they are not caught early on, the potential for severe damage to occur increases dramatically.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are three primary eating disorders that are common among kids of almost every age:
- Binge eating disorder is characterized by compulsive overeating where thousands of calories are consumed in a short period of time. People with this disorder feel guilty about what they are doing, but they feel compelled to keep doing it, nonetheless.
- Bulimia is a vicious, destructive cycle of bingeing and purging. When people with this disorder binge on enormous quantities of food, they immediately follow with some other type of activity intended to help them rid themselves of the massive amounts of calories they just consumed. Vomiting is the most popular way for people to rid their bodies of the food they have just eaten, but excessive exercise, laxatives and fasting are also popular choices.
- Anorexia is characterized by a continuous routine of starvation because of a fear of becoming fat. People who are anorexic never believe that they are thin enough, even if they reach a point of appearing malnourished. In some cases, anorexic people vomit to rid their bodies of the small amounts of food they occasionally eat. Others use diet pills or excessive exercise in an attempt to burn off the few calories they consume.
Learning What to Look For
It can be difficult to determine whether or not someone has an eating disorder. This is true of adults and children simply because people’s normal eating habits tend to change from time to time. Just because someone seems to be eating a bit lighter, or a bit more than usual, it isn't necessarily a reason to sound the alarm.
It is also not uncommon for people of most ages to be concerned about how they look. The difference is that with young adults and teenagers, these concerns have a tendency to become overblown and exaggerated. In many cases, it is very difficult to properly diagnose the existence of an eating disorder because people, kids in particular, are so adept at hiding what they are doing.
There are some warning signs, however, that can alert you to the presence of an eating disorder in your child:
- Restricting food intake. If your child starts skipping meals or making excuses to avoid eating, you might want to pay closer attention to his or her other habits, as this is usually the biggest warning sign of an eating disorder. In addition, when your child does eat, you might notice that the portions consumed are extremely small, or that only low-calorie food choices are being consumed.
- Purging. After kids binge, or even after eating a normal meal or snack, they feel the need to burn off (or get rid of) the calories they just consumed. They might make themselves vomit, use diuretics or laxatives, fast or exercise excessively. If you notice your child disappearing immediately after a meal or making more trips than usual to the bathroom, it could be a warning sign that he or she is purging. Mouthwash, perfume, breath mints and gum are all routinely used in an effort to hide the fact that they are purging.
- Bingeing. With bingeing, people will routinely eat normal meals or snacks in front of other people and then binge secretly. This often occurs late at night or in some private location where they know that they don't have to worry about someone interrupting them. If you start noticing empty food containers, wrappers or packages in strange areas of your house (or in your child's room), or you notice that your kitchen is being raided by some mysterious person on a regular basis, you should make an effort to pay closer attention to the children in your house. In addition, if you happen to find stashes of high-calorie foods, especially junk foods and desserts, you should also be concerned.
Other signs that your child might have an eating disorder include the following:
- Open preoccupation with his or her physical appearance.
- Rapid weight loss or gain that cannot be explained.
- Avoiding social activities that involve food.
- Continuous dieting.
If you are concerned that your child has an eating disorder, seek eating disorder treatment immediately. Through counseling that addresses both their eating disorder and any underlying issues, your child can make a full recovery before their disorder becomes a life-long struggle.