"My child used to eat everything, but now she seems so picky."
"My son consistently comments on wanting a "six-pack" stomach, and he's only 10."
"My 8-year-old daughter has gotten the idea that if she eats fat, she will be fat."
"All of a sudden, my 11-year-old child has decided to become vegetarian. I didn't even know she knew what a vegetarian is."
You are not alone if these comments sound familiar. Parents often hear or say similar things without realizing these comments can carry hidden messages. Often when these comments are made, they are not paid attention to until a full-blown problem has developed. Children who make these comments may be suffering from disordered eating. Disordered eating is a diverse problem characterized by distorted or disturbed attitudes or behaviors surrounding food.
Risk factors for disordered eating can include:
- preoccupation with weight/thinness/food/calories
- excessive exercise by child or family members
- low self-esteem
- lack of specific meal times when family eats together
- family history of eating problems
- family dysfunction
Does disordered eating lead to an eating disorder, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Binge Eating Disorder? Not necessarily, but it does indicate that your child may be at risk for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders can lead to serious medical complications, such as:
- Malnutrition and dehydration
- Slowed or stunted growth
- Weight loss
- Weak bones
- Tooth decay
- Delayed or interrupted puberty
- Structural brain changes, which can lead to cognitive and learning problems
- Poor quality of life or even death
Children develop disordered eating habits largely as a result of messages they receive from their surroundings. It is very important that you question where your child is receiving these messages.
Four questions you should ask yourself and your family are:
- Does your family eat together at least four to five times each week? Eating meals together is a simple way to spend time with your child.
- Is anyone in your family dieting?
- Are you dieting and/or concerned about feeling fat?
- Is anyone in your family exercising vigorously more than one hour a day for five or more days a week?
If you answered yes to questions two through four, please remember how easily your child can be influenced. A simple comment you make or a simple action you take could make a lasting impression on your child and affect his/her health and well-being in the future.
For more information about the treatment and prevention of eating disorders in children and adolescents, please contact the Eating Disorders Program at Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
Kristy Hoffman-Rieken, R.D., L.M.N.T. is a registered dietitian, specializing in the treatment of eating disorders in children and adolescents and teaching healthy eating and activity.