When we think of people with eating disorders, we often think of women who are so skinny that you can see all of their ribs, or girls who go in the bathroom to throw up after every meal. But just because you can’t see your daughter’s bones through her skin doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a problem with food.
There are many misconceptions about eating disorders and because February is Eating Disorder Awareness Month, we want to set the record straight. Bulimia and anorexia may be the most recognized names associated with an eating disorder, but there are other signs of an eating disorder that parents should watch out for.
Ilene Wynn, a registered dietitian and coordinator of the eating disorder program at Yellowbrick, says it’s important that parents observe their son or daughter’s behavior closely to look for some subtle warning signs that may indicate an eating disorder.
Here are signs of eating disorders to be on the lookout for:
There always seems to be some kind of diet in fashion—take juicing or veganism, for example—and sometimes, these can be taken too far. Warning signs include skipping meals and limiting food choices to one or two small quantities. It’s important to understand that each person’s behaviors will be different, but if these kinds of behaviors are ongoing, this is potentially problematic.
- Binge eating
Binge eating is typically described as recurrent incidences of consuming large amounts of food, typically within a short of period of time, until one feels extreme discomfort. The tendency to binge is often driven emotionally and contributes to feeling out of control followed by a sense of guilt, embarrassment, and shame about oneself. A child or adolescent may be using bingeing to find temporary relief from an array of negative feelings. Some hidden signs may include isolation from family and friends, moodiness, irritability, change in eating behaviors, and lack of self-care.
- Obsessive thoughts about food and calorie intake
Obsessive thoughts can indicate the presence of restrictive eating behaviors or alternating bingeing and restriction. Extreme circumstances occur when much of one’s day is spent thinking about food — what you have eaten, what you will eat at the next meal or snack. Constantly calculating calories consumed and knowledge of the caloric content of most foods eaten are a sign that disordered eating and thinking is occurring. Often an individual has difficulty thinking about much else and these thoughts begin to run one’s life. It is important to note that often the obsession with food and calorie intake is not about the food at all, but rather, a way that someone can exert control to manage other negative thoughts and feelings.
- Obsession about healthy eating
Officially called Orthorexia Nervosa, this behavior is all about “fixation on righteous eating” (per National Eating Disorder Association). When the obsession is unhealthy, an individual begins to focus only on eating foods that are nutrient-dense food. Eventually, this leads to obsessive concerns about what to eat and how much, and contending with any deviations from this rigidity become out of control. Those who suffer from Orthorexia may isolate from friends and family because their focus is solely upon food. The obsessive thoughts often have nothing to do with food and everything about one’s self-image.
How You Can Help
If you think that your son or daughter may be suffering from an eating disorder, there are ways you can help. Here’s some advice from Pan Tansey, director of professional relations at Yellowbrick.
- Educate Yourself
Tansey says the first step before you approach your son or daughter with your concerns is to educate yourself about eating disorders. “Eating disorders are very complex and there is a lot to understand,” Tansey says.
- Have a conversation
Tansey says parents must manage their own anxiety in order to approach the conversation by asking and not accusing, and, most importantly, not judging. Eating disorders often exist in a world of secrecy and shame so you may encounter defensiveness and denial. This conversation may need to be followed by many more as you set the tone for compassion and understanding. This may allow for your child to feel comfortable talking with you not just about the eating disorder behaviors, but also about stresses and concerns that are going on in his/her life.
- Don’t comment on how they look
When having a conversation with your son or daughter, Tansey says it’s important that parents avoid commenting on appearance. Body image concerns are a major struggle for many young people with eating issues. Instead, try to focus on what behaviors you have observed as the cause for concern.“The most important aspect of these conversations is to listen. Let him or her know that you are interested in what they have to say and want to work collaboratively with them to approach the issue,” Tansey says. “This lets them know that they are not alone with their struggles and that you are there to help.”
- Seek professional help
The final step if you believe that your son or daughter is struggling with an eating disorder is to seek professional help. Again, it is important to do your research. There are many programs and therapists that address this issue. The web sites mentioned above can provide the kind of support and information about treatment settings to help you decide what your son or daughter needs.
Yellowbrick provides intensive outpatient services for young adults who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, such as the ones mentioned above.