Call Today: (865) 622-7116

Does my child have an eating disorder?

Does my child have an eating disorder?

“I had no idea she was struggling with her body image and weight as much as she was…”

“He told me he wanted to start getting fit for the new sport season, so I just thought he was eating healthier….”

“She had never really been a picky eater and really enjoyed food until 8th grade and then something changed.  It was like she was becoming a different kid when it came to food…”

These are all comments that I often hear from parents when their child comes in for their first eating disorder nutrition assessment.  With busy school schedules and extracurricular activities, it can be very easy to miss the beginnings of an eating disorder.  Often the eating disorder has been growing for months before parents realize there is a real problem. 

The prevalence of diet culture and thinness strongly contributes to this messaging making its way into the hearts and minds of our children.  AND, it keeps happening earlier and earlier.  The following are some simple yet very significant red flags to be aware of if you think your child or teenager could be struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating:

·   Sudden interest in food and food choices that was not there previously

·   Obsession with choosing only foods that are considered “clean” foods/ refusing to eat anything packaged or processed

·   Use of the terms “good food” and “bad food” frequently, when this was not always the case

·   Sudden interest in exercise or desire to “workout” multiple times a day

·   Difficulty concentrating or staying on task with homework and/or grades dropping unexpectedly

·   Isolating to his/her room or disappearing to the bathroom after meals

·   Your child’s lunch account balance is not changing or the lunches you pack are coming home with little eaten

·   Sudden weight loss, 5-10% of their usual weight over a period of 1-2 months

·   Your child/teen cannot eat food that is prepared in a restaurant or other place because they don’t know if it is “healthy enough” or they can’t control what’s going into the food.

Granted, one or two of the behaviors above could simply mean you child or teen is catching a vision for a healthier lifestyle and wants to make some changes.  It’s also possible that they are modeling the behaviors of an important person in their life because they look up to them.  These in and of themselves are not bad things to do.  It is when the behaviors above become frequent and the ability to choose foods become more rigid and inflexible that we usually know a problem may be there.

What can parents do if they start to suspect some unhealthy attitudes or behaviors towards food?

·   Become curious with your child/teen and ask them how things are going

·   Talk to them about your concerns

·   Let your child know you are there for support

·   See your pediatrician or family doctor regularly and track growth patterns

·   Refrain from diet talk yourself or giving moral (“good/bad”) labels to food

·   Be mindful about making comments about your child’s/teen’s changing body

·   Make an appointment with a therapist and/or dietitian for recommendations

Although these precautions may seem like uncomfortable or extreme measures for a child who just appears to be becoming more health conscious, the peace of mind that taking these steps to ensure that your child has or will regain a positive relationship with food, exercise and their body is worth it.

Lastly, if you resonate with this article and suspect your child might have an eating disorder or could be developing one, remember that it is not your fault. Eating disorders can develop for several reasons related to both nature and nurture; it is not a result of anything you, as a parent, have done wrong. It’s not about what you have or have not done in the past, it’s about how you can help them now. Seeking treatment and just simply being there for your child throughout recovery are the best possible things you can do.

If you have questions or suspect your child has an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association is an incredible online resource. For help locally, Focus Integrative Centers offers free assessments to determine if an eating disorder is present. Focus additionally offers a monthly meeting for parents seeking support and guidance through the treatment and recovery process.

Written by: Lisa Davis, MS, RDN, LDN