How to Catch Signs of Eating Disorders in Children

Updated on February 11, 2021

It is common for eating disorders to present themselves in children even at a young age, and there are different types of eating disorders. The most common forms of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating, comfort eating, and excessive picky eating. The latter three can be more common in children while the former two are usually more associated with adolescents. 

Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia

Anorexia Nervosa is usually described as an emotional disorder that is characterized by the excessive need to lose weight. People affected by anorexia often deprive themselves of food in order to achieve this goal. Bulimia is also an emotional disorder characterized by the need to lose weight, however, bulimia is defined by processes of binge eating and then purging (vomiting). 

Signs of Anorexia in Adolescents

Often, the first sign of anorexia is increased weight loss and the preoccupation with body image. This later develops into the refusal to eat certain foods the person deems to be inducers of weight gain and then even whole groups of foods, such as carbohydrates, for example. 

Excessive calory counting and intake monitoring is also a sign of anorexia when combined with additional abnormal eating behaviors. Parents should watch for the following signs:

  • Refusal to eat in public
  • Preparing meals for others but not eating the meal themselves
  • Constant comments about weight gain
  • Unhappiness with body image
  • Not eating in public or at mealtime with the family

Parents should also take notice of adolescents who take an increased interest in rigid exercise regimens and eating rituals, such as eating foods in certain orders, rearranging the food on a plate or excessive chewing. 

Signs of Bulimia in Adolescents  

The signs of bulimia are similar to that of anorexia. However, some differences exist. Look for signs of binge eating without the proper ratio of weight gain. Also, look for signs of excessive intake sessions where the person eats large amounts of food and ritually retreats to their room or bathroom afterward. This includes periods of fasting in between binge sessions. 

Binge Eating, Comfort Eating, and Picky Eating

Alternatively, some children experience eating disorders that cause them to eat excessively during one sitting. This is called binge eating and is characterizes by the need of the child to eat until they are utterly stuffed. 

Comfort eating is when a child or adult turns to food to make them “feel good”. This is also an emotional disorder and is a symptom of more serious underlying emotional conditions. A child can turn to food when they feel stressed, scared, overwhelmed… to alleviate the pressure on them. In this case, eating habits are more sporadic and don’t necessarily have to include binge eating/eating excessively in one sitting, but more eating a lot, “all the time,” “always eating”. 

Picky eating is difficult to deal with and can result in a child not gaining the proper weight for their age. Picky eaters tend to regularly add more food items to the list of things they do not eat and can eat the same meal daily without getting tired of it. 

In all cases, therapy is a proper form of treatment for these eating disorders and children can have a healthy life afterward with proper care. In the case of picky eaters, parents should have their children tested for texture and food intolerances, such as gluten, as these can be the cause. In some cases, doctors can prescribe appetite-inducing medications. 

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