John M Goldenring, MD, JD, MPH
Eating disorders in children and teens cause serious changes in eating
habits that can lead to major, even life threatening health problems. The three
main types of eating disorders are:
Anorexia, a condition in which a child refuses to eat adequate
calories out of an intense and irrational fear of becoming fat
Bulimia, a condition in which a child grossly overeats (binging) and
then purges the food by vomiting or using laxatives to prevent weight gain
Binge eating, a condition in which a child may gorge rapidly on
food, but without purging
In children and teens, eating disorders can overlap. For example, some
children alternate between periods of anorexia and bulimia.
Eating disorders typically develop during adolescence or early adulthood.
However, they can start in childhood, too. Females are much more vulnerable.
Only an estimated 5% to 15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male. With
binge eating, the number rises to 35% male.
What causes eating disorders?
Doctors aren’t certain what cause eating disorders. They suspect a
combination of biological, behavioral, and social factors. For instance, young
people may be influenced by cultural images that favor bodies too underweight
to be healthy. Also, many children and teens with eating disorders struggle
with one or more of the following problems:
- fear of becoming overweight
- feelings of helplessness
- low self-esteem
To cope with these issues, children and teens may adopt harmful eating
habits. In fact, eating disorders often go hand-in-hand with other psychiatric
problems such as the following:
- anxiety disorders
- substance abuse
The dangers of eating disorders
Eating disorders in children and teens can lead to a host of serious
physical problems and even death. If you spot any of the signs of the eating
disorders listed below, call your child’s doctor right away. Eating disorders
are not overcome through sheer willpower. Your child will need treatment to
help restore normal weight and eating habits. Treatment also addresses
underlying psychological issues. Remember that the best results occur when
eating disorders are treated at the earliest stages.
Anorexia in children and teens
Children and teens with anorexia have a distorted body image. People with
anorexia view themselves as heavy, even when they are dangerously skinny. They
are obsessed with being thin and refuse to maintain even a minimally normal
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly one out of
every 25 girls and women will have anorexia in their lifetime. Most will deny
that they have an eating disorder.
Symptoms of anorexia include:
- anxiety, depression, perfectionism, or being highly self-critical
- dieting even when one is thin or emaciated
- excessive or compulsive exercising
- intense fear of becoming fat, even though one is underweight
- menstruation that becomes infrequent or stops
- rapid weight loss, which the person may try to conceal with loose
- strange eating habits, such as avoiding meals, eating in secret, monitoring
every bite of food, or eating only certain foods in small amounts
- unusual interest in food
Ron Huxley’s remarks: Eating disorders are very difficult things to treat, in my experience, as they tend to be so self-reinforcing and have such strong social reactions. This blog post by WebMd is an excellent overview. What it doesn’t address is the feeling of “control” it gives individuals who feel so out of control in life. One’s body can be one area that no one can tell you how to live or act. Finding a substitute that allows for control in a less dangerous way is very important. Ongoing treatment with a specialist and group therapies are also beneficial. How have you dealt with eating disorders with your child? Share!