Family Health

Understanding Eating Disorders and How You Can Help

Published: Feb. 24, 2020

Eating disorders are dangerous mental illnesses that can have long-term mental and physical repercussions if not caught and treated properly. And they’re especially feared by parents as children age and develop their self-esteem and relationships with food. Here’s a guide to the most common eating disorders, what to watch for, and how parents and peers can help those at risk or already suffering.

What Are the Most Common Eating Disorders?

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most common eating disorders. Of the three, binge eating disorder is the most common in the United States. Each disorder is different, but all affect health, emotions and relationships. Below is a breakdown:  

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the severe restriction of calories because of fear of weight gain. Sufferers see themselves as fat even though they’re underweight. In addition to restricting food, they may exercise too much or use laxatives, diuretics or enemas. People suffering from anorexia nervosa tend to have Type A personalities and be perfectionists. They may avoid eating in public or in settings where they don’t have control.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurring episodes of binge eating – eating large amounts of food without having control. This is coupled with purging to prevent weight gain. Purging can come in the form of self-induced vomiting, using laxatives and diuretics, taking medications, fasting or exercising excessively. Sufferers are often normal weight or slightly overweight and tend to be outgoing, impulsive and prone to self-destructive acts. 

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent binge eating, but it’s not associated with the purging behaviors seen in bulimia. Sufferers might eat faster than normal and eat even when not hungry. People often feel shame after a binge and eat alone to hide embarrassment. On average, bingeing happens once a week, and sufferers are often normal weight, overweight or obese. 

What Causes Eating Disorders?

The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, but they likely stem from a combination of biological, psychological, and social and cultural factors. Eating disorders often begin with dieting and progress to unhealthy habits as coping strategies for psychological and social problems. Some research suggests that eating disorders can be caused by imbalances of serotonin and dopamine

Risk factors for eating disorders include:

  • Family history of psychiatric illness or eating disorders
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • History of dieting
  • Perfectionism or inflexibility
  • Personal history of an anxiety order
  • Being teased or bullied about weight
  • Competitive athletics where low weight is rewarded – wrestling, figure skating, running, gymnastics, etc.

How Are Eating Disorders Diagnosed?

Because people with eating disorders often go to great lengths to hide their illness, it can be difficult to determine if someone has one. Here are some red flags parents can watch for:

  • Skipping meals
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Using the restroom during meals or immediately after
  • Eating alone or in secret
  • Frequently complaining about their body or pointing out flaws in the mirror
  • Calluses on knuckles from induced vomiting
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Depression and anxiety 

One skipped meal might not concern a parent at first, but small acts add up and can lead to long-term problems. Primary care providers (PCPs) can also be invaluable in diagnosing and catching eating disorders early. In addition to using screening questionnaires, PCPs look for the below signs:

  • Weight loss or gain on growth chart, or lack of proper weight gain
  • Adolescent stopped having or never had a menstrual period
  • Disordered thinking, or unable to describe emotions
  • Obsessions with weight, body image, food and calories
  • Parental concern about child’s weight loss, weight gain or body image
  • Physical changes such as changes in blood pressure, heart rate or heart rhythm; oral or tooth changes; muscle wasting; dry skin; cold hands and feet; enlarged salivary glands; hair loss; and development of lanugo body hair

How Are Eating Disorders Treated?

Eating disorders can lead to other serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders. Many medical issues resolve with treatment, but complications like low bone mineral density, slow growth and structural brain changes might not be reversed with prolonged disease. Eating disorders can even cause the loss of heart muscle due to starvation.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It’s imperative for people to seek help if they suspect their child or someone they love has one. A treatment plan might include:

  • A PCP, dietician and psychiatrist working together
  • Inpatient care at a hospital or facility designed for patients with eating disorders 
  • Family therapy to regain physical and mental health by changing thought patterns and habits
  • Antidepressants 

What Can Parents Do?

Adolescent females are especially vulnerable to eating disorders. And research is inconclusive about how much the disorders can be prevented due to biological factors. But parents can still take an active role in their child’s health by encouraging positive behaviors and habits. They can help by: 

  • Teaching children to enjoy and have a healthy relationship with food, exercise and eating
  • Encouraging positive body image in their children and modeling positive thoughts and words about their own bodies
  • Taking care of their own bodies with healthy eating and exercise
  • Being present and knowing what’s going on in their child’s life – asking about general thoughts, feelings and emotions
  • Promoting self-esteem that’s not based on appearance
  • Having discussions with their children about media and cultural messages surrounding appearance and unrealistic beauty ideals
  • Monitoring or setting limits on social media that may be influencing their children

Where Can People With Eating Disorders Get Help?

Sufferers of eating disorders may be too embarrassed to talk about their illness, and children might be afraid to be honest with their parents. But siblings, peers and other family and friends can offer support, lend a listening ear and help encourage positive behaviors and self-esteem. They can alert others or encourage someone suffering from an eating disorder to seek help, especially when they may lack full awareness of their problem. 

Parents should contact their child’s PCP if they suspect an eating disorder. Those suffering from an eating disorder or those who love them can also call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237 for support, resources and treatment options.

Eating disorders are an illness – not a choice. And no one has to suffer through them alone. 

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