How To Identify If Your Child Has An Eating Disorder?
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How To Identify If Your Child Has An Eating Disorder?

Sapna Bangar
4 min read

How To Identify If Your Child Has An Eating Disorder?

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Eating disorders are a group of disorders which were once considered to be uncommon in Indian culture, so much so that they were thought to be culture-bound syndromes by some.

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However, in most recent times, the incidence of these has been on a rise along with more awareness in professionals as well as in parents. With billboards and magazines shouting out ‘thin is in’, it is no wonder that the majority of young people are starving themselves to achieve ‘size zero’. We hear of a new diet almost every day and most people are sharing stories of what they are doing to lose weight. Are we going too far though? Is this generation giving paramount importance to weight and external looks over other personal attributes?

What are eating disorders and their types?

Eating disorders are unhealthy eating patterns leading to emotional, social and/or physical difficulties. Eating disorders can be of various types. Common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

Eating Disorder in kids
  1. Anorexia
People with anorexia restrict their diet leading to weight loss and very low body weight. They usually have an intense fear of weight gain and fear looking fat. They have a distorted body-image and see themselves as fat even when they are very thin.

People with anorexia are very strict about what and how much they eat. They may think about food or calories almost all the time.

To lose weight, some people with anorexia fast or exercise too much. Others may use laxatives, diuretics (water pills), or enemas.

  1. Bulimia
People with bulimia go on ‘binges’ – that is eating too much in a very short period of time with a sense of loss of control. They then feel guilty about it and try to compensate for overeating by making themselves sick, or over exercising, using a laxative or weight loss pills. Unlike people with anorexia who are very low weight, people with bulimia may be thin, average weight, or overweight.

  1. ARFID
People with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) are not interested in food or avoid foods leading to weight loss or not gaining the expected amount of weight. They are not afraid of gaining weight and do not have body image issues. People with ARFID don't eat because they are turned off by the smell, taste, texture, or colour of food. They may be afraid that they will choke or vomit. 

Eating disorders appear to be a reaction to the demand that adolescents behave more independently and more adultlike. The teenagers feel a lack of control over other areas in their life. These teenagers typically lack a sense of autonomy and selfhood. Many experience their bodies as somehow under the control of their parents, so that self-starvation may be an effort to gain validation as a unique and special person.

Adolescence is a time of intense changes. In addition to cognitive changes, teenage is a phase of rapid physical growth brought about by hormonal changes and puberty. Regardless of the timing of onset, physical appearance is of paramount importance during this time (wanting to “fit in”, but also develop their own unique style). Teenagers become overly conscious about their weight and appearance.

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So when should parents be worried about eating disorder or what are the signs to look out?

  1. Rapid or unpredictable weight gain or loss
When children or teenagers have rapid weight gain or loss without any underlying reason, parents should keep a close eye. 

  1. Change in eating habits
Refusing consistently to eat meals with family. Taking a long time to eat or playing with their food. Suddenly giving up high fat or carbohydrate-rich diet. Opting for a vegetarian or vegan diet or going off chocolates or fried foods completely. Checking labels of food items for calories. Finding food items hidden in the house is one of the signs parents should be vigilant about.

  1. Excessive obsession with weight and appearance
Checking weight excessively and mood changes related to weight gain or loss. Refusing to go out or socially isolating themselves due to their appearance. Wearing baggy or loose fitting clothes to hide weight.

  1. Using the bathroom immediately after mealtime
Parents should notice if their children are making themselves sick by inducing vomiting, if there is an unexplained smell of sick in the bathroom or excessive use of fresheners every time they use the bathroom.

  1. When food items go missing
Children who binge usually hide food items in their room for binging. Finding excessive chocolate wrappers in the dustbin, noticing children being secretive about food or the sudden disappearance of large quantities of food from the fridge- indicate the child has an eating disorder.

  1. Compensatory weight loss strategies
Too much exercise or gyming, ordering slimming pills or laxatives. Getting irritable or restless if not able to exercise even on a single day- these are the signs of an eating disorder.

  1. Physical changes
Loss of hair or lustre, dry skin, calluses on the knuckles due to induced vomiting, dental caries, irregular or absent periods in girls, tiredness, dizziness, fractures due to weakened bones are all warning signs to be alert about.

  1. Psychological changes
Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, social isolation, rigidity and inflexibility in thinking indicate towards an eating disorder. 

How can parents help?

Prevention is always better than cure. Here the ways parents can help:

  • Emphasize on fitness rather than thinness in your child.
  • Encourage them to have open conversations. Help them understand that all they see in magazines or TV (stick-thin models) may not be realistic. 
  • Love them unconditionally and encourage them to develop personal attributes not related to weight or appearance.
  • Help them realise that any diet or weight loss should be done in moderation.
  • Talk to your child calmly, but directly about your concerns.
  • Be supportive rather than invalidating their concerns.
  • If you are worried about your child, seek early help and talk to a professional.
Dr Sapna Bangar is Psychiatrist & Head, Mpower – The Centre, Mumbai.

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