National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 22-28, 2021) is dedicated to educating the public on the severity of eating disorders and the available resources for treatment and recovery. Eating disorders affect the mental and physical health of around 30 million men and women in America. It is often difficult to attribute an eating disorder to one cause as it can develop differently for everyone. However, being aware of potential risk factors can benefit you and your child in recognizing warning signs and knowing when to seek treatment. When it comes to your children, your guidance and knowledge are necessary to support and teach them how to sustain a healthy, body positive lifestyle.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, there are eleven different types of eating disorders including Unspecified and Other Feeding or Eating Disorder for those who do not explicitly fall under one of the following.
Anorexia Nervosa: distorted body image and weight loss or lack of weight gain
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): limits the amount and types of food consumed. Do not have fear of becoming fat or distress about physical body appearance.
Bulimia Nervosa: the cycle of binge eating usually leading to self-induced vomiting
Binge Eating Disorder: most common, consuming large quantities of food in one sitting, feeling guilty after, unhealthy compensatory behaviors
Compulsive Exercise: excessive exercise, interfering with other aspects of one’s life
Laxative Abuse: frequent use of laxatives to lose weight
Orthorexia: an obsession with ‘healthy’ eating
Pica: consumption of non-food (hair, dirt, etc.)
Rumination Disorder: regular regurgitation of food
Risk factors are organized into biological, psychological and social. Understanding what could be putting your child at risk for developing an eating disorder can help you better prepare to take action the moment you begin to see signs that they have an unhealthy relationship with food or their body.
Biological factors are often out of your control as a parent but there are things you can do to decrease your child’s risk. If your child has a close relative with an eating disorder or mental health condition, they are likely to have an increased risk of being diagnosed with a similar illness. If this is the case, talk with your child about these conditions so that they do not have a negative association with the topic. If your child is recommended to change their eating for the sake of their health, make sure to introduce these changes in a positive and healthy way. Those with a history of dieting or other weight control methods are more likely to struggle with eating in the future. Puberty, growth spurts, illnesses and intense athletic training can also cause your child to see themselves differently and result in an eating disorder.
Psychological factors are probably characteristics about your child you are already aware of. But, did you know that some of these could lead to eating disorders? Perfectionism is known as one of the strongest risk factors due to your child’s desire to look and do their best. If your child believes there is only one right way to do things, this behavioral inflexibility can lead to anorexia. Everyone struggles with their physical appearance at one point in their life, but high levels of body image dissatisfaction usually contribute to eating disorders. If your child suffers from anxiety, it is common that an eating disorder follows. Two-thirds of people who are diagnosed with anorexia also show signs of having anxiety.
Social factors have become very relevant with the presence of the internet and social media. Our society has conformed to the belief that being thin is better. Those who do not fit this mold may experience bullying which leads them to believe they are not good enough unless they lose weight. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and social isolation which have also proven to cause eating disorders like anorexia. The western belief that thinner is better has begun to affect racial and ethnic minority groups who come from cultures that do not so heavily emphasize the importance of an ‘ideal body’. Our consumption of technology and the way people have made it an outlet to present themselves ‘flawlessly’ has created a toxic environment. It takes intention to avoid this toxicity and we encourage parents to instill this mindset in their child early on to lower the social risk factor. To learn more about body positivity on social media, read here.
If your child is suffering from an eating disorder you will begin to notice changes in their emotional and physical behavior. There are general eating disorder symptoms as well as specific symptoms to the conditions mentioned above.
A few general symptoms can include:
Treatment and recovery can be approached in a variety of ways. You must consult with a doctor to find a treatment plan most beneficial to the physical and emotional healing of your child. Once your child has been diagnosed and is accepting that they need treatment, you may begin their journey to recovery.
Treatment often starts with some type of psychotherapy to combat eating disorder behaviors. In addition, different levels of treatment can be put into effect determined by the severity of the patient's case. This can be handled outpatient with daily medical monitoring, partial hospital with daily assistance and assessment of mental status, residential if the patient is psychiatrically impaired or inpatient if the patient is medically and psychiatrically unstable. Your child will receive psychological and nutritional counseling to aid them in effectively overcoming their eating disorder.
This process will be tough and your guidance and support are crucial for them to relearn how to love their body and form a healthy relationship with food. We encourage you to use this week as a reminder to spread awareness about eating disorders, common risk factors, signs, symptoms and the resources available for recovery.
If you or someone you know needs confidential support, contact the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (NCEED) by texting NEDA to 741741. NCEED is a center dedicated to identifying, treating and supporting the recovery of those with eating disorders.