Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses that come in many shapes and forms. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. It’s crucial that parents become educated about the disorders and their warning signs.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by excessive weight loss and self-starvation whereby a person has an intense fear of gaining weight. Bulimia nervosa is a cycle of binge and purge episodes when a person consumes a large amount of food in a short period of time and then purges it out either through self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, or laxative or diuretic use. Many people with bulimia nervosa are within normal weight range. And unlike anorexia, you cannot generally see bulimia. Binge eating disorder, which also falls under the category of eating disorder not otherwise specified, is characterized by consuming large quantities of highly caloric foods over a short period of time. Unlike bulimia, there is no purging of food.

All eating disorders share similarities. Eating disorders are not solely about food, diet or weight loss; they are indicative that something emotional is occurring and a person is feeling out of control and unsure how to process or verbalize their feelings.

What does an eating disorder look like as it develops?

  • Extreme dieting, removing oneself from the table, detailed pre-occupation with calorie counting, measuring and weighing food, elaborate preparation and rituals involving food such as cutting food into microscopic pieces and refusing to eat anything white like bread or bagels.
  • Increased weight gain or loss not related to a medical condition.
  • Buying diet books and visiting Web sites associated with eating disorders.
  • Suddenly becoming a vegetarian or restricting certain types of food.
  • Going to the bathroom after every meal.
  • Excessive showering.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Consuming excessive quantities of food— look for large quantities of food missing from the pantry.
  • Compulsive exercise or sudden obsession with several sports activities.
  • Increased isolation or depression.

How to communicate concern to your child.

  • Understand that communication is most effective if parents share similar concerns regarding the child.
  • Set aside time to have a discussion without any distractions (no phone, television, handheld device or computer).
  • Be honest and talk openly to your child. Ignoring the issue won’t help.
  • Use “I/we” statements to help explain what you and your partner have witnessed about the child’s eating and exercise patterns. It also lets the child know that you are concerned.
  • Tell your child you care about him or her. Your child is trying to tell you something in developing an eating disorder. Although the child may debate you on the issue, your commitment and concern shows your child that you love him or her and care about the child’s health and welfare.
  • Explain that you plan to seek a professional evaluation. Do not spring the evaluation on the child. Rather, give the child time to process what you have discussed so he or she does not feel deceived.
  • Seek a therapeutic intervention with an eating disorder professional to assist with negotiating and navigating the issue.

How to respond.

  • Do not bypass your child’s doctor. He or she can rule out medical issues related to your child’s problems and make recommendations for higher levels of care with specialists.
  • The doctor can perform a physical exam and take necessary lab work.
  • Ask if the doctor treats kids or adolescents with eating disorders.
  • Review warning signs and get referrals for eating disorder specialists.

How to talk to kids about the “thin is in” culture.

  • Limit the negative aspects of harmful external influences. The media and celebrities have a strong impact on how children see themselves.
  • Teach and mirror to your children that they are not valued based on their size or body. Explain that people are valued for being kind, funny, smart— the list continues.
  • Re-establish the importance of attributes other than one’s body, shape and size, such as whether a person volunteers, tutors and is a good friend and citizen. Point to role models in the media who are recognized for such traits.

Other forces that can induce eating disorders.

  • Being teased about weight.
  • Seeing parents struggle with weight and dieting.
  • Entering puberty and coping with the many physical and emotional changes that occur during this time.
  • The illness of a parent or sibling.
  • Divorce or problems in the home.
  • Issues with friends and socialization (feeling different or like an outcast).

Eating disorders often begin with the idea that looking a certain way on the outside will make a person feel better on the inside. When parents see any of the warning signs indicated in this article, things have escalated beyond healthy living. Get involved and take action!

Youth and Eating Disorders

Instilling a positive attitude toward food.