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What You Need to Know About Eating Disorders

Young girl on bathroom scale looking upset

While much of our collective attention is on the obesity crisis and how to help our children lead healthier lives, we should not forget a related issue that is also becoming increasingly common in children and can be seriously detrimental to their health and to our families: eating disorders.

Maybe we’re aware of anorexia (severely restricted eating) and bulimia (eating and then purging or using laxatives) and binge eating disorder (uncontrolled eating), but would we know it if we saw it? Would we know how to get help for our children if they developed a disorder?

Here are some essentials to help you out:

Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent among children. Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations of children under the age of 12 for eating disorders rose 119 percent. It’s been a couple of decades since this 1991 survey showed that girls as young as first grade wished they were thinner, but chances are things haven’t gotten better.

Eating disorders don’t necessarily look they way you think they’d look. They can manifest as concern about good food versus bad food, as food rituals, denial about feeling hunger, withdrawing from normal activities, extreme weight loss (although children with bulimia may maintain a relatively normal weight), wearing loose clothes, sore throat, or being obsessive about working out. Or children may develop a sudden interest in or obsession with cooking and preparing food, but don’t eat their own creations. They may frequent “pro-anorexia” or “pro-bulimia” websites to get inspired or motivated to be thin. Their eating habits may change suddenly (which may be hard to track if the family doesn’t eat together regularly).

Eating disorders aren’t necessarily about food. They are often spurred by dieting and anxiety about gaining weight but are fueled by a desire to maintain control. They are also connected to genetics, biology, society, and psychology. Children who exhibit more anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive compulsive behaviors are more likely to develop eating disorders.

You can get help. First, if you think your child might have an eating disorder, approach them about it. Tell them you are concerned because of the things you have noticed. Listen to them. Really listen. Be prepared to approach them more than once if they are resistant. Then talk to their doctor about it. Or call the National Eating Disorders Helpline at (800) 931-2237.

Eating disorders can be confusing and scary. However, they are treatable. And the sooner treatment begins, the more effective it can be.

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