Is Your Child At Risk For An Eating Disorder?

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 2:32pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Originally considered to be a disease exclusive to adult women and adolescent girls, eating disorders are now diagnosed in both males and females, and affect people of all ages, including young children. The term "eating disorder" refers to a variety of disorders, including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. These very severe illnesses do not develop overnight. Starting at a young age, more and more children are exhibiting disordered eating patterns. Disordered eating refers to troublesome eating behaviors, such as restrictive dieting, bingeing, or purging, which occur less frequently or are less severe than those required to meet the full criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder. Currently, 40-50% of all young women on college campuses are disordered eaters.

Causes of eating disorders

Disordered eaters often make their food choices based on the belief that if they eat a certain way, it will solve an unrelated problem. These problems often include self-dissatisfaction, social pressures, and family concerns. For example, if a young girl feels unaccepted at school, she may come to the conclusion that if she weighed less, more people would like her. Therefore, her food choices are driven by the ultimate goal of being popular rather than satisfying her hunger.

Symptoms of eating disorders

The above scenario may not seem very serious, but it is laying the groundwork for a future eating disorder. Early recognition and effective intervention of disordered eating behaviors is crucial in preventing an eating disorder from developing. Be aware of changes in your child's eating patterns. Is your child suddenly resistant to eating dinner with the family? Has she started refusing foods she has always loved? Be aware of signs of bingeing and purging, excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and use of diet pills. Also, pay attention to the way your child refers to herself. Does she call herself fat? Does she seem to perceive thinness as the key to happiness? This perception promotes poor body image which in turn may lead to disordered eating patterns and eating disorders.

Treating eating disorders

If your child is showing signs of disordered eating, remember that this is a symptom of an underlying problem that even she may not be able to pinpoint. However, some extra time, attention, and love will go a long way in bringing it to the surface. Following are some tips to help move your child away from disordered eating.

  • Encourage her to talk about her problems and feelings.
  • Be supportive. Show her you believe in her.
  • Focus on her inner qualities and strengths rather than her achievements. Share your own failures and mistakes.
  • Do not expect her to admit she has a problem.
  • Do not discuss her weight, eating habits, or exercise habits. The disordered eating is not the important issue, but is just a symptom of other problems.
  • Do not try to control her eating pattern and food choices.
  • Be a good role model by practicing normal eating patterns.
  • Examine your own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors about weight and body image. Do you tolerate diversity in body shape and size?

Plus professional help for eating disorders

If not properly addressed early on, disordered eating can lead to a full blown eating disorder. Eating disorders can have a serious and even fatal impact on the body. If you are unsure of how severe your child's disordered eating is or question your ability to intervene on your own, do not hesitate to consult a professional. Also, if you suffer from disordered eating yourself, you will not be able to help your child until you help yourself.

See also the following article from TheDietChannel: Anorexia Nervosa: You Can Be Too Thin.

For more information on a child that feels they are overweight see the following article from TheDietChannel: Body Image: Tips for Instilling Positive Feelings.