When your child has an eating disorder, they may change the way they behave. They may start:
- Talking a lot about their weight
- Weighing themselves multiple times a day
- Not eating around others
- Going to the bathroom right after eating
- Exercising all the time
- Pulling away from friends and family
- Using diet pills to keep from being hungry
- Taking laxatives and other pills to keep from gaining weight
Your child may experience other conditions, such as:
- Mood disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
Your child may have other physical signs. These will depend on the type of eating disorder they have. They may include:
- Calloused knuckles
- Brittle hair and nails
- Dry, blotchy, or yellowish skin
- Fine hair all over their body (lanugo)
- Dry mouth or sore throat
- Tooth decay
- Weakness from muscle loss
- Bone loss
- Swelling in joints
- Poor memory
- Intestinal distress
- Low blood pressure
- Low body temperature
- Heart damage or heart attack
- Brain damage
- Multi-organ failure
- Enlarged salivary glands
The signs of anorexia include:
- Low body weight
- Limiting what they eat
- A need to be thin
- A deep fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
- Denial of how serious their low weight is
The signs of bulimia include:
- A lack of control during a binge
- Secrecy about eating and purging
- Eating an unusually large amount of food without gaining weight
- Episodes of not eating, and episodes of binging and purging
Other Eating Disorders
If your child has another type of eating disorder, they may show signs of anorexia or bulimia. However, any number of signs could indicate an eating disorder.
Talk to your child’s doctor if they are showing some or all of these signs:
- Strong focus on their weight
- Exercising too much
- Very low weight (with anorexia)
- Problems from stomach acid
- Unhealthy eating behaviors
Eating behaviors that are unhealthy can include:
- Restricting what they eat
- Binging on food
- Purging what they eat
The exact cause of eating disorders is not clear. It may stem from many factors, such as:
- A drive for perfection. This drive can be fueled by media that show unrealistic thinness. Family and friends who value “fitting in” with a certain body size, shape, or weight might play a role.
- Some sports. For example, your child’s sport might emphasize how they look (like gymnastics or figure skating) or weight gives them an advantage (like long-distance running or wrestling).
- Emotional and personality disorders. Depression, anxiety, traumatic life events, and a desire for control may lead to an eating disorder.
- Feeding problems. Having problems with eating during infancy or early childhood may increase your child’s risk of an eating disorder.
This list does not cover every factor. The cause will be unique to your child. Your child’s experiences, genetics, environment, and other personal factors might all play a part.
Anyone can develop an eating disorder. They are most common in young women (teenagers and young adults), but they can happen to people of any gender, race, age, or weight.
Eating disorders are diagnosed after your child’s doctor has had an opportunity to check your child’s symptoms. Your child’s doctor will decide if the symptoms fit with those of an eating disorder.
The diagnosis process may include:
- Talking. The doctor will ask about what your child eats and how much. They’ll also want to know if they fast, if they force themselves to vomit, how they see themselves, how much they exercise, and what their family background is like.
- Family conversations. The doctor may also talk to you and other family members to learn more about behaviors and family history.
- Medical history. The doctor will learn about your child’s past health, diseases, and treatments.
- Exam. The doctor will do a physical exam to check your child’s current health.
- Tests. The doctor may also test blood and urine. The test results will give them an idea of how well your child’s body is working.
If your child has lost a lot of weight, the doctor may order more tests to find out how much damage the weight loss has caused. These tests might include:
- Bone density tests
- An electrocardiogram [ih-LEK-trow-KAR-dee-oh-GRAM] (to check the heart)
- Kidney function tests
- Liver function tests
- Thyroid function tests
Your child’s doctor might order these tests regularly to keep track of the treatment’s progress.
Treatment for eating disorders depends on your child’s disorder, their health problems, and on their unique situation. Treatment generally consists of:
- Medical treatment. Your child’s doctor will treat your child’s medical problems and prescribe needed medicine. No medicine can cure an eating disorder, but health problems caused by it might be treated with medicine. Emotional issues related to it may also be eased with medicine.
- Behavioral treatment. A therapist or psychologist [sahy-KOL-uh-jist] can also talk with your child about life events. Current stress and past trauma can affect their eating and feelings about food. The therapist can also treat related problems, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Your child’s care team will consist of:
- Your child. Your child will play the most important role in treatment. The more they participate, the better their outcome will be. They will need to learn about their problem and the benefits of overcoming it. They will also need to work with the care team to follow the treatment plan.
- Your child’s doctor. Your child’s doctor will keep track of your child’s overall health.
- A therapist. A therapist or psychologist will counsel your child on their emotional issues.
- A dietician. A dietician can help alter your child’s nutrition based upon their disorder and their individual needs.
- A care manager. A care manager will coordinate your child’s treatment. They can also find resources such as support groups to help.
- Your family. Family members can provide support and join your child at appointments when needed.
Treatment by a medical care team improves the chances of recovery. With proper treatment, your child can beat their eating disorder. The keys to recovery are:
- Committing to getting better.
- Taking the time they need to get healthy.
Treatment can be hard and take many years. There are no easy fixes. After your child returns to healthy eating habits, they may need long-term help to maintain their healthier habits.
Measures to prevent an eating disorder are not certain. Your child’s doctor may be able to spot early signs of an eating disorder. They will ask about how much your child eats and how they see themselves. Starting treatment early can prevent many of the health problems an eating disorder can cause.
Eating disorders are complex problems. They affect how your child feels and thinks about themselves. They are often hidden, so it’s unclear how many people have them. We know that they affect a lot of people — boys and girls, young and old.
All eating disorders have things in common. They tend to occur in people who have one or more of these traits:
- Obsession with food and weight. They think a lot about what they eat and how much they weigh. These thoughts take up much of the day.
- Distorted body image. They may see themselves as fat, even when underweight.
- Obsession with exercise. They overdo exercise to stay thin or to burn off what they eat.
Eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa [an-uh-REK-see-uh ner-VOH-suh] or just anorexia
- Bulimia nervosa [boo-LEE-mee-uh ner-VOH-suh] or just bulimia
- Binge-eating disorder (binge eating with no purging)
- Purging disorder (purging with no binging)
- Chewing then spitting out large amounts of food
Anorexia involves self-starving and having very low weight. Your child may limit calories by following drastic diets, fasting, or exercising too much.
The physical health risks of anorexia include:
- Slow heart rate and muscle loss, which lead to fainting, low energy, weakness, and possible heart failure.
- Weakening bones, which leads to bone breaks.
- Dehydration and loss of nutrients, which lead to irregular heartbeat, heart or kidney failure, and sometimes death.
There are two main types of anorexia:
- Binge-eating (eating an unusually large amount in a short period of time) and/or purging (throwing up or using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics to eliminate food).
- Restricting calories by following drastic diets, fasting, or exercising too much.
Bulimia involves secretive binging (eating an unusually large amount in a short period of time). This is followed by purging (throwing up or using laxatives, enemas, or diuretics to eliminate food). Unlike with anorexia, your child may have a normal weight.
The physical health risks of bulimia include:
- Dehydration and loss of nutrients, which leads to irregular heartbeat, heart or kidney failure, and sometimes death.
- Tooth decay caused by stomach acids from throwing up.
- Digestive system damage from throwing up, which leads to stomach or esophagus rupture, ulcers, and other health problems.
There are two main types of bulimia:
- Purging to lose weight after a binge.
- Non-purging methods like exercising too much or not eating to lose weight after a binge.
Other Types of Eating Disorders
Other types of eating disorders vary greatly. It’s important to remember that any type can be dangerous. It can hurt your child’s body and mind.
If your child has another type of eating disorder, they may show signs of anorexia or bulimia. However, any number of signs could indicate an eating disorder. Other eating disorders include: The health risks of each of these vary a lot. Ask your doctor about them.