Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses with high levels of psychological stress, risks of severe short and long-term medical complications, and an increased likelihood of premature death. Eating disorders have the highest mortality of any psychiatric illness.
The secretive and complex nature of eating disorders means they often go undetected. Early recognition of the symptoms can be key to finding help promptly and giving your child the best chance of treatment and recovery. Knowing the warning signs and seeking help early can significantly enhance the success of your child’s program and recovery.
It is important to note that everyone’s experience of an eating disorder, and that of their family and friends, is unique. An eating disorder is not a cry for attention, nor is it a selective lifestyle. An eating disorder is a serious mental health issue that can be life threatening, and needs to be treated as such, not as a lifestyle choice that can be cured by “just eating”.
There are several types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specific feeding and eating disorders (OSFED), including selective eating disorder, that all have differences and nuances. Children can move from one to another during their recovery.
Children and teens suffering with eating disorders often feel a high level of shame and fear about their condition and will go to great lengths to ensure it is not discovered. So how does a family member or friend work out if there is actually an eating disorder problem?
There are several signs that could indicate your child is suffering from an eating disorder or is at risk of developing an eating disorder. Dramatic weight gain or loss or a refusal to eat are obvious signs, but there are other more insidious indications that your child could be in trouble.
What are signs of an eating disorder?
Poor body image and self-talk
Poor or negative self-talk about body image can contribute significantly to decreased mental and physical health, and could be a warning that your child has an eating disorder. Society’s obsession with being thin and youthful, coupled with social media and peer pressure, leads many young people to compare themselves unfavourably with others. Feelings of sadness, shame and dissatisfaction with their bodies can lead to extreme weight control behaviours that can be harmful – in both boys and girls. Our belief that ‘thin is best’ can lead to adolescent depression and low self-esteem.
Not eating in public
The fear of eating in public, or eating with family and friends, and the internal shame that comes with being seen consuming food, can be a red flag. If your child refuses to eat in public, or even at home with you at family meals, it could be a sign of an eating disorder. Some children and teens will go to the lengths of pretending to eat with the family, while actually hiding that food in their clothing or nearby objects.
Compulsive ‘healthy’ eating
Children and adolescents who become passionate and compulsive about ‘healthy eating’, ‘clean eating’. They may then increasingly restrict their diets while counting calories to reinforce their healthy eating plan and can be at risk of developing a selective eating disorder.
Feeding others elaborate meals
Teens and children that take great love and happiness in feeding others in large, complicated and over-the-top meals may be exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder. Preparing and cooking elaborate meals for others, but not sharing or eating the prepared food can be an early warning sign of a problematic relationship with food.
Eating rituals and strange food combinations
Eating rituals can be a symptom of anorexia and binge eating disorder, or other eating disorders, and can give the child a sense of control. Rituals can take the form of cutting food into very small pieces and moving food around to place it in patterns. This behaviour is a tactic to make it look like they are eating, while actually eating very little and keeping their eating behaviour secretive. Creating strange food combinations, think ice-cream and tomato sauce, can also be a sign of binge eating disorder.
Excessive, obsessive or compulsive over-exercising can often go hand in hand with eating disorders.
Wearing loose clothing
Physical signs and symptoms can sometimes take longer for friends and family to become aware of, as the child or teen can go to great lengths to hide any symptoms of their disorder. Adolescents may wear loose or baggy clothing to hide their weight loss. While parents may be relieved their child is not wearing tacky or tasteless clothes, this could be a sign of something more sinister. As weight loss increases, many will feel constantly cold and will wear many layers to keep warm, even during mild weather.
Very fine body hair
Some parents may notice their child is developing a very fine, pale coloured hair on their body, similar to a light, down-like fur as their body adjusts to surviving with less food and nutrients to fuel their body.
Parents are encouraged to look closely at the hands of a child suspected of suffering from bulimia as they can exhibit grazing or callousing on their knuckles, caused by scraping them against their teeth in an effort to purge.
How to help if you think your child has an eating disorder?
Seek expert opinion now, don’t wait
Dr Leanne Barron, a General Practitioner with a special interest in eating disorders at The Banyans Health and Wellness, says early intervention in an eating disorder is far more effective than waiting months or years to seek help.
“If you think your child is suffering from any type of eating disorder, contact the experts so they can help you,” says Dr Barron.
“Medical and other support is never far away, and people need to put aside their fear and shame and ask for help in the best interests of their child.
“Emerging research is identifying underlying genetic and biochemical risk factors, and it is important to appreciate that nobody chooses to have an eating disorder.
“We have the multidisciplinary expertise and knowledge here at The Banyans to help address the issues underlying an eating disorder,” said Dr Barron.
Be compassionate and non-judgemental
Dr Barron advises parents to address any concerns they have regarding their child or teen in a non-judgmental and compassionate way. It is important to have a discreet discussion with the person as many people feel ashamed of what they are doing and go to great lengths to hide it.
As an eating disorder is a complex psychological and physical illness, a comprehensive biopsychosocial approach is imperative in treating the condition. Dr Barron approaches all her eating disorder patients from this treating perspective.
The extended eating disorder treatment team at The Banyans Health and Wellness may comprise of other allied health specialists including psychologists, counsellors, and dietitians.
It is important to note that acute eating disorder cases may require hospitalisation and physical stabilisation prior to a stay at The Banyans Residence.
If you or someone you love would benefit from a program at The Banyans Health and Wellness residence, please call +61 1300 BANYAN (1300 226 926) for a non-obligatory, confidential discussion or fill in our enquiry form below.