Eating Disorders: What to Know as a Parent
We have seen our youth go through a tremendous ordeal throughout the pandemic. Isolated from friends and family, witnessing countless deaths around them, it is no wonder that we have seen an uptick in children and teen emergency room visits due to mental health problems. We will see the lasting effects of the pandemic for still decades to come, but the preliminary data is clear that this global disaster had a real and lasting impact on the younger generation, possibly more so than any other. As a result, there has been a noticeable rise in eating disorders, particularly amongst adolescent girls. Unfortunately, eating disorders are common in younger people, where one in seven men and one in five women suffer from an eating disorder by age 40. What is more concerning is that in 95% of those cases the eating disorder begins by age 25. The term “eating disorder” refers to a wide range of conditions categorized by an unhealthy relationship with food and concerns about one’s weight.
Eating disorders exist on a wide spectrum so it is important to be able to know one from the other. The most lethal eating disorder by far is anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder is characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight. Those with anorexia see themselves as overweight when they are actually a healthy weight, or even when they are dangerously underweight. People who suffer from anorexia often too suffer from a condition known as “body dysmorphia” where the individual fixates on the small imperfections of their body, these imperfections are often unnoticeable to others or are not even real. It has been studied that 25 to 39% of patients diagnosed with anorexia also have body dysmorphia, suggesting the two conditions have some correlation. There are two forms of anorexia nervosa. The restrictive form is when people limit what they eat to dangerously low levels to try to lose and control their weight. The binge-purge form is where people will still limit how much they eat, but then eat a large amount of calories all at once. Then attempt to expel or “purge” the food through vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise.
A common eating disorder that is often mistaken for anorexia nervosa is bulimia nervosa. The two are quite similar except bulimia is categorized by binging and purging without limiting how much a person eats. The most common eating disorder is binge eating disorder, which is when people binge eat but do not purge or restrict at all. This can often lead to obesity and then obesity related illnesses such as heart disease or high blood pressure. The most common eating disorder amongst younger children is avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. This eating disorder is categorized by the limiting of food based on amount or type, but not due to concerns about weight. Children, due to sensory issues, often refuse to eat certain foods based on their smell, texture or taste. This is a greater problem than just being a “picky eater” and may lead to malnutrition.
The myths surrounding eating disorders are what truly disables parents from being able to help their children. When most think of eating disorders, they imagine someone who is skin and bones, however you can have an eating disorder and be a normal weight. Parents need to be informed and learn the signs of a possible eating disorder. The things to watch out for are changes in what, when and how much your child eats. Are they being unusually restrictive of what they eat? Have you noticed fluctuations in their weight? Have they expressed dissatisfaction with their body or weight? Are they exercising more or spending more time in the bathroom? These are warning signs that parents must be aware of. If you believe your child might have an eating disorder, it is important to remember that eating disorders are mental health problems and are not a choice. Research has shown that eating disorders are often caused by underlying psychological issues and can affect brain processes that control hunger and food intake, which reinforces the disorder. Eating disorders are a serious and potentially lethal problem, please speak to your pediatrician if you think your child may be afflicted.