Aside from opioid use disorder, do you know what the second deadliest kind of mental health problem in the United States is?
Tragically, eating disorders are very common in children and adolescents.
- Nearly a third of children aged five – six have a body size ideal that’s thinner than their current perceived size.
- By age seven, one in four children has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior.
- 93 percent of young women engage in “fat talk” (criticizing each other’s appearance and weight) in everyday life.
- 53 percent of American girls report being unhappy with their bodies at age thirteen, 78 percent at age seventeen.
- 95 percent of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the prevalence of child and adolescent eating disorders by compounding the stress that young people experience daily. If you’re a parent or caregiver, it’s vitally important for you to be aware of these disorders and know what to do if you notice any troubling eating behaviors in your home.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are many kinds of eating disorders. The most common ones include:
People with anorexia severely restrict how much food they eat. They may also exercise compulsively and/or purge (see Bulimia Nervosa, below). They usually see themselves as overweight, regardless of their body size. This can cause thinning of the bones and infertility, and can ultimately result in heart, brain, or multi-organ failure and death.
Bulimia is characterized by binge eating (devouring large amounts of food uncontrollably) and then purging (trying to undo these binges through vomiting, fasting, laxatives, compulsive exercise, and other methods). Purging can cause an inflamed or sore throat, tooth decay, acid reflux, and severe dehydration. Ultimately, bulimia may create electrolyte imbalances that can lead to stroke or a heart attack.
Binge Eating Disorder
As with bulimia, people with this disorder will eat large amounts of food at one sitting. They may feel shame, disgust, or guilt about this. But, unlike people with bulimia, they don’t purge. They face an increased risk of complications like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
People with this fairly newly recognized disorder only eat a very limited number of foods. This is easily dismissed as just “picky eating,” especially in children. But individuals with ARFID don’t ingest enough calories to develop properly, or even maintain basic body functions. This can create dangerous electrolyte imbalances.
The Role of Body Image
Many kids and teenagers (and grownups) have body image issues, and this can play a big role in anorexia and bulimia. There’s so much pressure in our society to look a certain way — coming not just from in-person peer interactions, but also social media, TV, and other sources.
Kids and teenagers may compare themselves to unrealistic ideals and try doing something drastic to look the way they think they’re supposed to. Or to fit into a particular weight class for their favorite sport.
One thing you can do to help keep your child healthy is to encourage them to accept themselves the way they are and recognize that they’re attractive and worthy. Bodies come in all sizes and shapes. We can’t all look like [insert your child’s celebrity role model here].
Eating Disorders Aren’t Just for Girls
It’s commonly believed that only girls get eating disorders. However, the truth is much more complex. People of all genders and sexualities experience eating disorders. So it is important to tune in and recognize the signs of an eating disorder in all persons.
If You Think Your Child May Have an Eating Disorder
As a parent or guardian, you’re better positioned than anyone else to notice changes in your child’s eating patterns or an ongoing obsession with food or their weight. With that said, don’t try to diagnose or manage your child’s eating issues yourself. You and your child may not be the best judges of whether their weight or eating habits are healthy, or what to do if they’re not.
If you think your child may have an eating disorder, talk to their pediatrician or family doctor. They’ll also be screened for eating disorders at every well visit. If a health care provider believes your child has an eating disorder, they will probably be able to recommend where to take them for treatment.
There are many strategies for treating eating disorders. Treatment usually begins with some form of psychotherapy as well as nutrition education. More advanced cases may require hospitalization, a day treatment program, or a residential treatment program.
Independence Blue Cross members can find all these resources on our Provider Finder. All our health plans cover nutrition counseling and behavioral health treatment. And Registered Nurse Health Coaches are available to our members 24/7; call 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY/TDD: 711). You can also call the National Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767.
If your child has an eating disorder, they will have to learn to change their relationship with food. And you’ll need to learn how to support them along the road to wellness.
It probably won’t be a “quick fix.” It could be a long, tough journey. But it’s a necessary one, for your child’s immediate and long-term health. And the sooner it begins, the better.