Kids Health

Beyond Picky Eating: What Parents Need to Know About Eating Disorders

written by DANA PETERS, R.D.
eating disorders"
eating disorders
Graphics by: Kirra Wallace
Graphics by: Kirra Wallace

As our children grow from babies and toddlers to “big kids,” our challenges as moms shift from navigating the perfect nap time to dealing with tougher issues—like the possibility of an eating disorder. And while we hope to deal minimally with these types of issues, it’s best to be prepared and informed.

In fact, it’s estimated that about one in seven males and one in five females will have an eating disorder by age 40. Overwhelmingly, these eating disorders start by age 25, but they can also affect children as young as 8 to 10 years old. 

“It’s important for parents to understand eating disorders aren’t one-size-fits-all. They can happen at any point, to anyone of any background or socioeconomic status,” says Jessie Menzel, Ph.D., psychologist and Senior Director of Program Development at Equip, a virtual eating disorder treatment program. “The best thing parents can do is be aware of and educated about eating disorders.” 


What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious mental and physical illness that involves a damaging relationship with eating, exercise, and body image. It can occur regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or weight and includes illnesses such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Eating disorders are complex and highly individualized, but the characteristics of a few common eating disorders are below:


Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by weight loss or lack of appropriate weight gain in children. It’s oftentimes accompanied by distorted body image.


Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a cycle of binge eating and behaviors used to compensate, such as vomiting.


Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food as well as feeling out of control around food. It’s accompanied by feelings of shame or guilt after a binge.


Disordered eating habits and orthorexia

Disordered eating habits, changes in eating that typically last for a shorter period of time and aren’t as disruptive as an eating disorder, should also be on parents’ radars. Similarly, orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating and may involve restricting certain foods or becoming obsessed with checking nutrition labels. 


What are the warning signs of an eating disorder?

Eating disorders present differently in every child, so it’s not always easy to notice the warning signs, especially early on. However, according to Menzel, parents should be on the lookout for any intentional shift in your child’s eating habits such as starting a diet, wanting to eat “healthier,” or becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

“If you notice any significant shift in your kid’s eating, that’s something as a parent you should be curious about,” says Menzel. “Ask them to tell you more about why they made the change and be sure to notice if their new eating habits are making it difficult to enjoy things they used to—such as playing sports or spending time with friends.”

Other warning signs to be aware of include becoming more anxious about their body and making negative comments about their body as well as being more secretive with their eating, like skipping breakfast or not eating dinner with the family.


eating disorders

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What should you do if you suspect an eating disorder?

As with any concern you have about your child’s health and well-being, if you suspect your child may have any eating disorder, it’s best to start by talking to their pediatrician. While some pediatricians are not as well-versed in eating disorders, they can at least offer you support and point you in the right direction.

You can also start by doing some research and educating yourself about how to deal with eating disorders in children, that way you can be ready to advocate for your child when you do meet with the pediatrician or other healthcare provider. Two organizations that provide resources for parents and family members of those suffering from eating disorders include F.E.A.S.T. (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatments for Eating Disorders) and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)


Can eating disorders be prevented?

Given their complexity, it’s not really known what, if anything, can prevent an eating disorder.

“Eating disorders are really complicated in what causes them,” Menzel shares. “They are a brain-based illness, so something has to ‘light the match,’ so to speak, in a person who has a genetic predisposition for one.”

However, Menzel states that parents can work on their own relationship with food and their bodies in order to be positive role models for their child. Be careful not to label foods as “good” or “bad” and not to put conditions on eating certain foods such as vegetables before your child can eat dessert.

Watch your words when it comes to talking about your own body and remove judgment statements surrounding what you eat. For example, avoid saying things like, “I need to work out after this meal.” Lastly, recognize that feeding your child is about helping them to grow.

“Every food can nourish,” Menzel says. “And as long as your child is growing, they are being nourished.”

If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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