Child Health + Development

Eating Disorders: The Signs That Something is Wrong

Young girl on bathroom scale looking upsetSometimes parents know immediately that something is not right with their child's habits around food; other times the signs of eating disorders can be difficult to spot or explained away by a tween or teen who does not want to be scrutinized. In this ParentMap Q & A with Dr. Mehri Moore, the program founder and medical director at The Moore Center, learn more about what to watch for and how to help your child approach his or her relationship with food.

What are the most common eating disorders you are seeing today in kids under 18?

The two most common eating disorders in adolescents under 18 are anorexia and bulimia. About 3 percent of the adolescent population suffers from a diagnosable eating disorder, however, many go without treatment. We see more adolescent anorexics seeking treatment rather than bulimics because the physical consequences of anorexia are more evident to parents. With bulimia, adolescents are able to hide their condition from family and friends and are often suffering alone.

What is the typical age of onset for an eating disorder?

The average age of onset is between ages 12 and 17. It is very typical to see patients that started their eating disorder at age 13 when entering in to puberty.

What is different today about eating disorders compared to several years ago?

Today we see a much greater number of patients suffering from an eating disorder that also have serious substance-abuse issues compared to 10 years ago. Parents and schools are now more aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and are more likely to advocate for seeking help for their children. Insurance now offers equal converge for mental illness due to the Mental Health Parity Act, which has allowed much greater access to treatment for eating disorders.

What signs should parents or friends look for?

With eating disorders, parents should look for both physical signs and behavioral changes. Some physical signs include: Brittle nails, hair loss, calluses or cuts on hands, swollen glands, fatigue and fainting. Some behavioral changes include: Disappearing to the bathroom after meals, inflexibility or indecision around food, counting calories, not eating in front of others, lack of variety in food intake, constantly reading food labels, and withdrawing from friends and social networks.

What about boys?

Eating disorders in boys have the same presentation as eating disorders in girls. For some males, their eating disorder begins with a drive to achieve athletic prowess or the “ideal” body type. In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in the number of males seeking treatment for their eating disorders. Increased awareness has caused the stigma around males with eating disorders to decrease.

Are there any habits or behaviors we see in younger children that can lead to eating disorders later on?

Children that display anxiety, perfectionism, rigidity, and risk avoidance can be more prone to developing eating disorders.

When should parents begin to speak to kids about eating disorders?

Parents should start talking about healthy food and balanced nutrition at an early age. They should also be aware that excessively talking about body image and being self-critical of their own appearance or size can have a major effect on their children.

How are eating disorders, media depiction of girls and women and body image connected?

At a young age, women are bombarded with images through the media that are not only unachievable but also unhealthy. They tend to enforce the belief that in order to be happy and healthy that women have to be thin and beautiful. This creates a culture where women constantly feel not good enough and are striving for a level of “perfection” that is unachievable, which inevitably leads to negative body image and low self-esteem. There are genetic, psychological and social factors that contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Not everyone that is exposed to these media images will develop an eating disorder but for some women with certain genetic and psychological predispositions, the media can definitely play a role in the development of an eating disorder.

What can we do as parent to help ensure our children have a healthy body?

Compliment to your child’s achievements and character rather than what they look like. Deemphasize weight in conversations and speak positively about bodies, food and shape. Be a positive role model for your children and realize that your own negative body image can have an effect on your children.

Is there anything else that you think is important for parents to know about eating disorders?

Early intervention for eating disorders in adolescents is key. The chances of achieving a full recovery are much higher the earlier that patients seek treatment. Also, full recovery from an eating disorder is absolutely possible.

Dr. Mehri Moore is the program founder and medical director at The Moore Center.

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