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Eating Disorders on the Rise in Children- What Parents Need to Know

Eating Disorders on the Rise in Children- What Parents Need to Know

Eating disorders affect 30 million people in the U.S., and 95 percent of them are between 12 and 25 years old. Unfortunately, these mental health illnesses have spiked in recent years.

Eating disorders can affect people of all races, genders and ethnic groups and have the highest risk of death of any mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions among kids and teenagers have been exacerbated throughout the last few years with lockdowns, changes in routine and structure, isolation, and fear and anxiety related to COVID-19. The National Eating Disorder Association reported a 58 percent increase in cases from March 2020 to October 2021. Significant increases in screen time and access to social media that portray harmful messaging and imagery surrounding body size also play a role in the rise of eating disorders.

There are several types of eating disorders affecting our youth:

  • Anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, after asthma and obesity. It is characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight. There are two forms of anorexia nervosa- restrictive and binge-purge. Restrictive anorexia means people limit what and how they eat to control their weight. Binge-purge anorexia is when someone not only limits their intake, but also uses vomiting, laxatives, diuretics and excessive exercise to get rid of the extra calories they did consume.
  • Bulimia nervosa involves binging and purging without limiting intake.
  • Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. This means you binge eat but do not purge or restrict food.
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is most common in childhood and occurs when food is limited by type or amount, but not out of fear of weight gain. Those with ARFID are extremely picky eaters and typically have little interest food and do not consume enough calories to grow, develop or maintain basic body functions. This can result in stalled weigh gain and growth in children.

Experts believe eating disorders stem from a combination of psychological, biological and sociocultural factors. They are mostly found in those with a history of trauma, low self-esteem, difficulty managing stress or who have a family history of mental health issues. Kids who participate in sports that stress the importance of leanness like swimming or wrestling can have a greater risk of developing an eating disorder.

Here’s what parents should look out for:

  • Increased irritability, fatigue, anxiousness and depression
  • Constipation
  • Nausea after eating
  • Loss of menstruation
  • Unusual weight fluctuations
  • Changes in what, when and how they eat
  • Self-isolating or withdrawing from friends and family
  • Spending more time in the bathroom
  • Expressing unhappiness with their body, weight or comparing themselves to others
  • Restricting certain foods that were once enjoyed
  • Increased length or frequency of exercise

It is a common misconception that eating disorders only affect body fat and muscle mass. Malnutrition can affect every organ in the body. If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder, make an appointment with their pediatrician or primary care physician. People with eating disorders are also more likely to have co-occurring mental health issues, so treatment is most effective when started early.

Eating disorders most often require support from both medical and behavioral health professionals and depending on the severity, can be treated in an outpatient setting.

While it may be difficult to seek treatment for your child, therapists stress the importance of validating your child’s feelings and struggles. Approach these difficult conversations with your child free from criticism and judgement.