When you think of an eating disorder you are probably thinking of a teenager or an adult. In reality, eating disorders can affect children as well. Eating disorders in children can severely impair growth since their nutrition requirements are not met. Since there are more and more cases of eating disorders emerging in kids nowadays, it’s important to be aware of the problem and recognise the symptoms.

Read on to understand everything about different types of eating disorders in children and what you can do to manage them.

Common types of eating disorders found in children

Since children today are more impacted by the diet and body shaming culture, it’s important to be aware of the types of eating disorders that can affect them. Spotting an eating disorder in a young child, below 12, is tough but it’s important to take any sudden weight loss seriously. There are essentially three major eating disorders.

  1. Anorexia Nervosa- This is a condition where the child eats very little, which in turn leads to low weight. It is mainly because they feel they look fat among friends. Children with anorexia tend to follow a very strict diet, and they think only about calories all the time.
  2. Bulimia Nervosa- Though its rare in children, it’s a condition that leads the person to eat excessive amounts of food and then look for ways to get rid of the consumed calories. They mostly throw up everything they have eaten, which is called purging. To maintain their weight, they engage themselves in intense exercises, or try weight loss pills, laxatives, and diuretics.
  3. Binge eating- This is a condition where the child compulsively overeats and cannot seem to control what he is eating, even when he is not hungry. Once they finish eating, they start feeling guilty and get upset. Children with this disorder tend to become overweight or obese.
  4. Avoidant/restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) - Children suffering from this condition eat only a limited number of foods because they get turned off by the texture, smell and colour of food. Hence, they do not gain the required weight even though they are well built.

Causes of eating disorders

There is no specific cause for an eating disorder. It can be caused by the environment, stressful situations and hereditary factors. However, there are several factors associated with eating disorders.

  • Body Appearance or Image- This is common among children between 10-12 years of age who are very cautious about their body shape and size.
  • Children who have a family history of obesity, mental problems, depression, and illness often suffer from eating disorders. Genes play a major role in this case.
  • Teens who have eating disorders are often from families who have a very poor communication pattern, high stress levels, and unsolved problems.
  • Children who are involved in sports are likely to develop an eating disorder, as they emphasize more on the sport and performance, than nutrition.
  • Teens with eating disorders are usually anxious, depressed, and show a lot of mood variations. These children are immature when it comes to emotional development and are likely to keep themselves away from everyone.

Symptoms - Symptoms mainly depends on the type of eating disorder. Here are some signs of an eating disorder in a child.

Anorexia Nervosa-

  • Low body weight, and BMI that is below normal
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Complaints about being fat, though they are losing weight
  • Refusal to eat even though they are hungry
  • Strange eating habits
  • Excess physical workout
  • Some other symptoms associated with anorexia are dehydration, discomfort, constipation, tiredness, and yellowing of skin

Bulimia Nervosa-

  • Excessive fasting, peculiar eating habits, propensity to throw up, fearful feelings of not being able to stop eating
  • Low body weight
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Anxiety
  • Dissatisfaction regarding body shape and size
  • Depression
  • Other symptoms include swollen face, tooth decay, frequent stomach upset, constipation and sore throat

Binge eating-

  • Eating in excess within a short period of time
  • Eating more even though not hungry
  • Food disappearing from the kitchen
  • Anxiety

Treatment for eating disorders

Such disorders are best treated by a team which consists of a dietician, a doctor, and a counsellor. The doctor might suggest some medications for mental problems like depression and anxiety, while the dietician will counsel the patient with nutrition-related talks about weight gain and loss. In severe cases, the child may need to be hospitalized for better care and monitoring for mental illness.

Role of parents in managing eating disorders

Every parent should closely monitor their child’s behaviour if they find any of the above symptoms. Then they must follow these steps:

  1. Create a friendly atmosphere for the child, and be calm and caring. Talk to them about their problems, understand their feelings, and make them feel comfortable. Be patient and supportive.
  2. Take the help of a doctor or any health care provider if you observe any of the above symptoms. Make an appointment with a paediatrician.
  3. Regular visits to a doctor can help. Treatment of eating disorders takes time, so parents should have the necessary patience.
  4. Parents should make kids understand the nutritional value of food and their benefits for overall growth and health.