Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect millions of Americans.
The disease has a huge biological influence (aka it’s brain and genetic based) that we’re still learning more about today! Of course, you would want to protect your kids from any potential harm. But, as we know, unless you live in a bubble, this probably isn’t realistic. I wanted to write this blog about recognizing eating disorder symptoms early. Research has shown that early intervention is key for recovery. This means, it’s important to do your best to recognize potential disordered patterns sooner rather than later so your child can get support in developing a more positive relationship with food and body. If the symptoms are not treated, the disordered thinking has time to grow. For example, what started out as “not eating dessert,” could turn into cutting out more and more foods.
I am going to write about some patterns for you to look out for in your child. If your child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, I ask that you just observe if they are making other changes and what those changes may be. Any of the behaviors I have listed below are warning signs. Remember, that many times what I have listed are often paired together. So, it’s not just one change in your child’s behavior that will determine whether or not they have a disordered relationship with food
What to look out for:
Your child saying “I want to eat healthy.”
This statement might be a bit controversial. You may be thinking, “well what is wrong about my child wanting to eat healthy?” In our society, “eating healthy” is something that is admired and glamorized. Think about all the Instagram and Facebook accounts and health gurus that exist. However, I can tell you, that so many of my clients who struggle with food started out by “just wanting to eat healthier.” It can be so easy to get caught up in the “black” and “white” of nutrition. Many foods, at least in the media, tend to be put into these “good” or “bad” categories. Your child may begin to slowly cut away these “bad” foods to just be “a bit healthier.” Little by little, this can turn into restrictive food rules and anxiety around certain foods. Please be observant if you see your child trying to eat “healthy.”
Significant weight changes
I talk a bit about following the growth curve in a blog that I wrote on What Health Professionals Should Know About Eating Disorders. If you son or daughter, falls off their growth chart, that should be a cause for alarm, even if they are in a larger body. This means that if your child has always been in the 87th percentile on weight, they should remain there. If they drop to the 60th percentile, that is a huge red flag! This is because they are falling off what is normal growth for them. Not all children are supposed to be exactly at the 50th percentile. Some people are genetically designed to have a larger body.
Not eating with the family
Has your child started to avoid family dinners? Have they started to eat something else? If the family gets take-out or goes out to eat, has your child decided to stay/cook at home instead? Family dinners are supposed to be a time to relax and spend time with the people you love. It can be troublesome if your child no longer wants to eat with the family.
Newly vegan or vegetarian
If your whole family is vegan or vegetarian, then you may be able to ignore this! But, if your child suddenly decides to become a vegan or vegetarian, I would be curious about this. Why? Are they trying to support animal rights? Maybe there is a way to get involved without changing their eating habits. Becoming a vegetarian is sometimes a way to cut out a food group and for the eating disorder to have an excuse for a more restrictive diet.
Baking or cooking, but not eating it
If you cook it, you eat it! Right?! Someone struggling with an eating disorder sometimes loves to bake and cook for people they love. It’s one way to experiment with food and get some type of enjoyment without actually eating it. So, if your child suddenly becomes a baker but you find out he or she is not eating it, again, be curious about this.
Exercise habits that aren’t normal for your child
Has your child always been athletic and involved in sports? Maybe it’s normal for them to exercise multiple times a week and to spend extra time training. But, if your child is suddenly increasing their exercise or doing something out of their “norm,” pay attention.
Some other questions you may want to ask yourself are:
- Is my child taking days off of exercise? Especially if he/she is injured?
- Is my child avoiding social events to go to the gym?
- Is my child getting variety with exercise?
- Is the exercise my child is doing appropriate for his/her age?
- Is most of the exercise/movement my child does with other people as opposed to alone?
You may be thinking, well what is wrong if my child exercises more? Exercise is healthy! Yes, movement can be really good for your body and soul. If you find that your child all of a sudden has rigid exercise habits or is also cutting back on certain foods… that might be a red flag combination. Typically they go hand in hand. However, if you find that your child is increasing his or her intake of foods while increasing exercise, this may be okay. I would still encourage you to observe a bit more.
Reading labels vigorously/calling out family members for eating “unhealthily”
Is your child all of a sudden an encyclopedia of nutrition facts? Does he/she all of a sudden reciting calorie information to you? Is your child all of a sudden telling you how to cook? For example, asking you to use olive oil instead of butter. I’m a dietitian, and I don’t even read nutrition labels that closely!! I personally don’t think anyone should be reading labels excessively, especially not a teenager, adolescent or child. I don’t think we need the calories, fat content, protein content…etc. to tell us whether or not a food is “good for us.” If your child is starting to read labels vigorously, be mindful of this. There could be so many disordered food thoughts and increasing anxiety.
Wanting to diet
This may be an obvious one, but then again, maybe it’s not. If your child asks you if they can diet or wants to diet with you, please be concerned. I can’t tell you how many eating disorders start out by going on a diet. No child should want to restrict his/her food intake that seriously. If your son/daughter comes to you with this, please be compassionate. Ask them a few more questions about why they think they need to diet. I would encourage you to make an appointment with a dietitian experienced in eating disorders.
Talking to your loved one can be tough.
It is hard and not always helpful to point out a change in weight or ask about exercise and dietary changes. Instead, listen to your child. Ask them how they are doing emotionally, do they like school, is it hard making friends do they feel good about themselves? Early intervention and treatment is key for recovery. It’s important to remember that eating disorders are not a choice and not as simple as just eating more. It can be very scary to reach out and get support for this disease. Trust your gut. It does require serious treatment and intervention and the sooner the better.
Make an appointment with a dietitian and therapist who specialize in eating disorders.
Especially in the early stages, your son or daughter may be ambivalent to getting help. This is a very normal part of an eating disorder. Eventually as they build trust with their dietitian/therapist, they will start to open up and work on the disordered thinking. Hang in there. Getting support can be so tough, but it is so worth it.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to use if we can help you at all. Visit our contact us page or call us at 240-670-4675
Blog idea inspired by Kait Fortunato Greenberg.