A Guide To Disordered Eating In Children

Healthy eating is a primal component of your child’s health, growth, and development. It also supports better energy levels, boosts mood, grows muscles, and even protects the heart. Regardless of the proven benefits of eating, there has been a notable rise in eating disorders, most presently seen in adolescent girls. Several different disordered eating habits can occur in children, including weight concerns, eating habits, or restrictive behaviors. 

Disordered Eating In Children

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. At Wake Forest Pediatricians, we want to ensure you know the warning signs of disordered eating in children to try and decrease the alarming rate at which they affect our youth. 

Early Signs Of Disordered Eating

At a young age, the signs and symptoms of disordered eating are often subtle, which can make early detection difficult. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, some warning signs may include:

  • Anxiety associated with specific foods
  • Not eating what they used to eat or enjoy
  • Fear of stomach aches
  • Skipping meals
  • Preoccupation with food and eating
  • Making comments about other people’s bodies
  • Worry about body image

It’s important to keep an eye on your child and maintain open communication so that you can work together in the best way possible. When you engage in healthy eating habits, your children will likely follow suit.

Common Eating Disorders In Children

There are a number of different eating disorders. The three most common types of disordered eating in children include:

  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (AFRID): This is the most common eating disorder experienced by children, which involves a lack of interest in food, a sensory aversion to certain foods, or extremely picky eaters. AFRID can lead to insufficient vitamins, nutrients, and minerals, poor growth, delayed puberty, and a damaged relationship with food. 
  • Anorexia Nervosa: Children with anorexia nervosa believe they are overweight when often they appear to be normal weight or underweight to others. Children often obsess over their food intake and ways in which they can control their weight. This form of self-starvation can lead to severe dehydration, fatigue, emaciation, yellowing of the skin, dizziness, and the growth of fine, downy body hair. 
  • Pica: Pica is a condition where a child has cravings and might eat non-food or non-nutritional substances. Some of these substances often include soap, dirt, sand, chalk, hair, or ice. Although the exact cause of pica is unknown, it is more common in children with developmental problems, mental health problems, or children who experience malnutrition or increased stress levels.   

Other eating disorders that can cause serious health problems in your child or teen include bulimia or binge eating disorder.  

Risk Factors And Treatments

The National Eating Disorder Association outlines three categories that pose significant risks for disordered eating in children: 

  • Biological factors: Having a close relative with an eating disorder or mental health condition, negative energy balance, exposure to dieting, or type 1 diabetes.
  • Psychological factors: Perfectionism, body image dissatisfaction, symptoms of anxiety or depression, or behavior inflexibility. 
  • Social: Weight stigma, bullying/ teasing, acculturation, or appearance internalization

Overcoming an eating disorder is difficult but not impossible. It is important your child receives timely and professional treatment to minimize future complications. There are a variety of approaches on how to get your child back on track including child therapy, family therapy, group therapy, meal education, or parent education. For more serious cases, a child may require expert care such as inpatient care, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient care. 

Early detection and treatment of disordered eating in children can help to set them up for a happier, healthier life. The board-certified pediatricians and staff at Wake Forest Pediatrics are dedicated to providing quality care to patients in Wake Forest and Knightdale. Our comprehensive approach focuses on teamwork and open communication with patients and parents. If you have questions about disordered eating in your child, call our Wake Forest office at 919-556-4779 or our Knightdale office at 919-266-5059 to make an appointment.

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