Children's Hospital Colorado

How to Prevent, Recognize and Treat Eating Disorders

Due to the high demand on sports performance these days, it is possible to see a young athlete struggle with an eating disorder. Young people often work hard to keep their struggles with food secret, so it’s hard to know just how many people suffer from eating disorders. Between 1 to 13% of American high school and college-age women are estimated to suffer from these illnesses.

How it begins

Eating disorders often begin with dissatisfaction in appearance and efforts to “eat healthier” or exercise more. But for some people, these behaviors can lead to changes in thought patterns and behaviors that develop into an eating disorder. The thoughts and behaviors become difficult to resist, and emotional and physical health begin to deteriorate.

The problem often begins with active efforts to lose weight, such as a weight-loss diet, or increasing exercise, but then something goes wrong. Once 5 pounds have been lost, the weight goal is lowered another 5 or 10 pounds. Or perhaps the original goal is never quite reached, and instead the teenager’s weight goes up and down in a seesaw pattern. Eventually, the pursuit of thinness becomes an obsession that assumes more importance than anything else in the person’s life.

How to recognize an eating disorder in your child

Young people go to great lengths to deny and conceal their painful struggles with food. Here are some signs that may help you recognize an eating disorder in your child:

  • Excessive weight loss. Anorexia nervosa is diagnosed when someone is 15% below expected weight (whether because of loss of weight or failure to gain with growth).
  • Use of laxatives or diet pills.
  • Weight fluctuations. Although people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain near-normal body weight, their roller coaster dieting may show up in erratic weight gains and losses.
  • Food disappearing on a regular basis.
  • Unusual eating habits. This includes taking tiny bites to stretch out eating time or compulsively arranging food on the plate.
  • Excessive and often obsessive exercise.
  • Dull hair and hair loss, splitting or softening nails.
  • An absence of menstrual periods for females related to malnutrition.
  • Secretive behavior, especially with respect to eating and bathroom use. A teenager who habitually runs water, plays the radio or flushes the toilet repeatedly while using the bathroom may be masking the sounds of vomiting.
  • Dental cavities and gum disease, caused by malnutrition and vomiting.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse. Sometimes, teenagers with eating disorders will turn to substance abuse to relieve feelings of fear, shame and depression.
  • Extreme sensitivity to cold, caused by loss of fat and muscle.
  • Fine body hair on arms and legs. This is the body’s attempt to keep warm.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Distorted body image. No matter how thin they get, people with anorexia still believe they are too fat.
  • Irritability, depression, or talk of suicide.
  • The person stops eating meals with the family. They might make excuses that they are too busy or eating elsewhere.

Remember that no one is to blame when a child develops an eating disorder. Discuss your concerns openly, and then seek professional help. The pediatrician or primary care provider is where most families start when they become concerned.

For more information on how you can help someone who has an eating disorder, watch these helpful tips: