Anorexia, Bulimia and Your Child

As a parent you often worry about how your child will cope in the world. You may worry they will get bullied at school, or get involved with drinking or drugs or run with the wrong crowd. You probably have already overheard your adolescent daughter or tween talking about her weight and how she has to go on a "diet." You may have heard your son saying he has to workout at the gym to become "built." Whether or not these comments concerned you, it is important to be aware of the societal and cultural messages about body images that your children are receiving and interpreting every day.

Don’t Underestimate Your Child
Many parents make the mistake of assuming that things like dieting and being concerned about don’t enter a child’s consciousness until they are in their teens. Sadly, this is not true. The Eating Disorders Coalition reports that 40% of 9 year-old girls have dieted and 5-year-old girls are already concerned about their weight. It is clear that the media and advertising play a large role in affecting the psychological well being of young people. But so do you.

Your attitude towards a persons weight heavily influences the way your child views themselves and others. To determine just how much of an influence your attitude has, there are several key questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I often talk about body issues and losing weight in front of my child?
  • Do I often evaluate people on their weight and appearance in front of my child?
  • Do I categorize foods into good, low-fat and bad, fattening or dangerous?
  • Do I only compliment my child on their physical attributes and not their intelligence, abilities and skills?
  • Do I equate thinness with intelligence and fatness with sloppiness or laziness?

It is important to be well aware of your attitudes toward body image and dieting when you communicate with your children. Help your child understand the difference between eating properly and being healthy and being too thin or severely overweight because of poor eating habits. If you are concerned about your child’s attitude when it comes to weight issues and dieting, consider talking to your child’s teacher about introducing media literacy classes or talking about body image in the media. Taking these measures can help your child feel more confident about the way they look and reduce their likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

Types of Eating Disorders

Since 1960, the prevalence of eating disorders has doubled. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 10 million women and 1 million men in the United States suffer from the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Understanding more about these disease and knowing the signs may help you spot a problem before it gets too serious.

Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder whereby a person is excessively preoccupied with their weight and body image. People identified with this disorder essentially starve themselves in order to achieve their ideal body weight. The disorder mainly affects teenage females but boys, men and adult women can develop the disorder as well.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
If you notice your child displaying these symptoms, talk with your child and make an appointment with their health care provider.

  • Unusual preoccupation with food (i.e. collects recipes, looks at pictures of food, reads food labels, cuts-out certain foods from diet)
  • Avoids eating with others, skips meals, engages in odd eating behavior (i.e. makes sure all food on plate is separate and not touching, insists in cutting food into tiny pieces)
  • Excessive weight loss caused by exercise, vomiting, laxatives or diuretics
  • Dangerously below normal body weight
  • Afraid of gaining weight
  • Negative body image
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Behavior marked with rituals and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Begins to grow lanugo- fine body hair
  • Mild anemia
  • Brittle nails or hair
  • Low blood pressure

Complications of Anorexia Nervosa
Help for anorexia is available and may consist of enforced weight gain, hospitalization, cognitive behavior therapy, medication to help with depression, and group or family therapy. However, without treatment, someone who is anorexic puts themselves at great risk of seriously damaging their body. Complications associated with anorexia includes:

  • Heart Disease- anorexia causes abnormal heart rate and degeneration of heart muscles leading to cardiac arrest
  • Hormonal fluctuations in anorexia can cause loss of menstruation, bone loss, infertility and stunted growth
  • Electrolyte and mineral imbalance results from chronic starvation and vomiting; diet aids can disturb the electric currents that make the heart beat.
  • Brain and nerve damage, seizures
  • Damage to the stomach lining, esophagus and teeth
  • Bladder and anal incontinence
  • Digestion problems, like constipation and bloating
  • Death

Bulimia Nervosa
People affected by Bulimia nervosa will binge on food and then attempt to purge the food in order to avoid gaining weight. Like anorexia, bulimia can affect boys and men as well as girls and women.

Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia
The symptoms of bulimia can sometimes be a bit harder to spot. Because bulimics don’t generally don’t lose as much weight as anorexics, it can be easier to hide this disorder from others. Typical signs of bulimia include:

  • Frequent binge-eating
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Lack of weight gain despite overeating
  • Frequently visiting the bathroom after meals
  • Cuts and blisters on hands and knuckles
  • Bloodshot eyes (caused by too much vomiting
  • Vomiting, using laxatives, fasting or excessive exercise after binging
  • Preoccupation with weight and body shape
  • Frequent sore throats or swollen neck glands
  • Bad breath
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Cheeks are swollen from vomiting
  • Abnormal heartbeat

Complications of Bulimia
Like anorexia, the effects of bulimia can be quite serious and may include:

  • Tooth and gum damage from lactic acid in vomit
  • Frequent bloating, sore throats and heartburn
  • Infections of the esophagus or a ruptured esophagus
  • Low potassium levels in blood from purging can cause abnormal heart rhythms and weakness
  • Digestion problems and constipation
  • Ulcers

Other long term complications associated with bulimia include fluid loss and electrolyte imbalance. Severe loss of electrolytes may result in kidney and heart failure.

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa
The causes of anorexia and bulimia are unclear. However, anorexia and bulimia can develop due to a combination of factors including genetics, family pressure and environment, societal and cultural influence and chemical imbalances in the brain.

Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa
There is a wide variety of treatment available to those diagnosed with these eating disorders. Your doctor may send your child to an eating disorder treatment center or hospital where she will receive specialized care, such as nutrition education, psychological counseling, and family counseling. Your teenager may be prescribed antidepressants if she has an underlying anxiety disorder or depression.

How to Talk to Your Child About Eating Disorders

You have a strong influence over what your child thinks, says and believes. Your child will often model your behavior when it comes to issues like food, weight and body image. You should talk to your teen on a regular basis about healthy nutrition and exercise and having good self-esteem.

Encourage your children to critically evaluate all that they hear and see on television, magazines and in the schoolyard about "ideal" body weight or beauty. You should practice healthy nutrition, moderate exercise and learn to accept your own body as your teenager will undoubtedly mimic your behavior and exhibit your attitudes. If you fear your family’s attitude towards weight is causing your child to develop a eating disorder or an unhealthy attitude towards food, you should call a family meeting and think about asking your doctor for family counseling.

Get Active
It has been shown time and time again that children involved in regular activities or sports often have a higher sense of self-esteem than those who don’t. Encourage your child to get active by enrolling them into a sport or after school program of their choice. Limit the amount of time your child watches television or plays on the computer and get involved in outdoor activities instead.

To really get your child moving, make the activity a family affair. Take swimming lesson together, go to the park for a game of baseball, or take a hike together. Showing your child a healthy attitude towards exercise will help encourage her to have the right attitude. If your child is active during these formative years, she is more likely to continue being active as an adult.