by Dr. Matthew Toohey
One in five women and one in seven men experience an eating disorder by age 40, with the initial onset most frequently taking place during adolescence and young adulthood. Research shows there is a connection between the rise of social media and unrealistic body standards, which can lead to disordered eating in young people. While it may not be possible to shield your child from the pressures of the world around them, you can help them build a healthy foundation for their relationship with food and body image.
Common Eating Disorders
An eating disorder is characterized by eating behaviors that negatively affect your physical and mental health. There are many different types of eating disorders. With anorexia, people severely restrict their food intake. Binge eating involves consuming a larger than normal quantity of food in a short amount of time. Bulimia is defined by self-induced vomiting, often done after binge eating.
There are plenty of other forms of eating disorders that may be more complicated. I encourage you to read about these other eating disorders if your child doesn’t fit within the definition of the ones listed above.
Many eating disorders tend to be coupled with body dysmorphic disorder, also known as body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia involves worrying about your appearance to the point where it disrupts your life. Most young people are bombarded with imagery of unrealistic body standards in the media, which can quickly lead to body dysmorphia.
The Effects on Young People
No matter a person’s age, eating disorders and dangerous and potentially life-threatening. They can eventually lead to issues like cardiac arrest and kidney failure. Not eating properly can affect children’s growth and development.
Young people with body dysmorphia may be so preoccupied with their appearance that they have difficulty concentrating in school or miss out on social events. These moments are incredibly important during a person’s developmental years.
Noticing the Signs
As your child grows, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of an eating disorder. Some common signs are as follows:
- An abnormally high or low weight
- Changes in eating behavior
- Changes in social activities
- Low self-esteem
- Compulsive exercising
There are lots of other signs that can point to an eating disorder. No two children are exactly the same, and as a parent, you likely know your child well enough to know which signs are more relevant than others. Keep in mind that young people can be very careful when it comes to hiding their eating disorders, and they may display virtually no signs.
Another way to determine if your child has an eating disorder is to keep up with visits to your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. They will be able to notice an unhealthy change in your child’s weight, heart rate, and other vital signs. Regular visits are also opportunities for your child to talk to a trusted adult who is not their parent, which may encourage them to open up about their mental health.
Creating a Healthy Foundation
Eating disorder prevention starts with your everyday language and habits. Here are some ways to encourage a healthy relationship between your child and food:
- Don’t label food as “good” or “bad.” Almost all food should be acceptable in moderation.
- Don’t focus on your child’s appearance. Compliment them on their personality and achievements.
- Include a variety of foods in their diet and encourage a fun and active lifestyle.
- Talk to your child about unrealistic beauty standards in the media. Teach them that bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and they don’t need to look any certain way to be loved.
- Don’t discuss your own diet or negative body image in front of your child.
Parents are humans, too, and there is only so much you can do to protect your child. Remember to lead by example as best as you can and continue to learn other ways to encourage a healthy lifestyle for your child.
If you or someone you’re caring for is struggling with an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, contact your primary care provider. For someone who is in immediate need of help, contact the NEDA Helpline. AmeriHealth New Jersey members can log in at amerihealthnj.com and use our Provider Finder to locate an in-network doctor.
Dr. Matthew Toohey is the Network Medical Director for AmeriHealth New Jersey.