Preventing Eating Disorders in Children

Written by Michele Wheat

Eating disorders manifest themselves as a dysfunction related to food and eating. Some disorders involve extreme restrictions and dieting, and others are characterized by overeating. Eating disorders are psychosomatic illnesses, meaning that they are psychological illnesses that also have physical symptoms. Many eating disorders require some type of medical and psychological intervention to help patients stop the unhealthy cycles and recover. Eating disorders can span many years, and it's common for people to have an ongoing struggle to overcome them.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are several types of eating disorders, and there may be some overlap of symptoms depending on an individual's unique issues. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme restriction of calories, and compulsive exercising is often an issue as well. People with anorexia tend to lose a significant amount of weight. Bulimia nervosa involves secretive binge eating and then compensation for the binges by forced vomiting, use of laxatives, excessive exercise, fasting, or any combination of these tactics. Some people maintain a normal weight with bulimia nervosa, some people lose weight, and others may gain weight. Binge eating disorder includes recurring episodes of binge eating, usually done in secret. A person with this disorder will suffer extreme feelings of self-loathing and guilt after a binge-eating episode. Those with binge eating disorder often gain weight. Another type of eating disorder is called avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. This disorder involves limitation of a certain type of food out of fear of gaining weight. Dramatic weight loss is common with this type of eating disorder.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can have a variety of causes. Researchers have found that there may be a genetic predisposition to the development of an eating disorder. Families may have members in multiple generations who struggle with eating disorders. It's also common for eating disorders to be prevalent in families that struggle with depression and anxiety. Environmental causes can set people up for developing eating disorders, too. Some examples of environmental causes of eating disorders include participation in certain sports that have rigorous performance requirements, the experience of some type of trauma, and family dynamics that put a strong focus on perfection. Culture also plays a role in eating disorders due to the strong messages that can be perpetuated about unrealistic standards for beauty.

Prevalence of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders happen to people of any gender, age, race, sexual orientation, size, or background. It's estimated that about 9 percent of the worldwide population is affected by some type of eating disorder, and about 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States have an eating disorder. Statistics show that about 10,200 deaths happen annually as a result of an eating disorder. New cases of eating disorders have been climbing since the 1950s, and girls as young as age 6 often express concerns about their weight and how they look. Although men have historically been less likely to develop eating disorders than women, it's thought that men often suffer in silence with their eating disorder symptoms.

Tips for Preventing Eating Disorders

One of the best ways to prevent eating disorders is to be aware of their prevalence and know the common symptoms. Watch kids and teenagers for signs of depression and anxiety, and respond quickly if you notice problems coping with stress or trauma. Parents should model healthy behavior and self-care, placing value on their character and accomplishments instead of their appearance. Encourage kids to have a positive body image, provide healthy food options, and don't categorize any foods as "good" or "bad." Help kids learn healthy ways to cope with stress, model these coping mechanisms, and provide support and assistance for managing home and school responsibilities. If you notice any symptoms of an eating disorder, intervene and seek help promptly.