What are eating disorders and disordered eating?
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses.
The most common eating disorders are:
anorexia nervosa, which is when someone tries to lose more weight than is healthy and has a distorted body image
bulimia nervosa, which is when someone eats very large amounts of food and then gets rid of the food – for example, by vomiting or using laxatives
binge-eating disorder, which is when someone needs to overeat but doesn’t need to get rid of the food.
Disordered eating is behaviour that isn’t quite as severe or regular as the behaviour in anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder.
But disordered eating can be just as medically and psychologically serious as the other eating disorders, and it needs treatment too. Someone with disordered eating might also be at risk of developing an eating disorder.
Although girls are most at risk of eating disorders, boys can also develop them. Boys sometimes go untreated for longer because parents and health professionals aren’t looking for body image and eating problems in boys.
Red flags for eating disorders
Changes in your child’s eating habits, mood, behaviour – particularly in relation to food – and body can be red flags for eating disorders.
Note that you don’t have to be ‘thin’ to have an eating disorder. In fact, rapid weight loss in overweight teenagers can be a sign of an eating disorder.
Food and eating habits
You might notice that your child:
- prepares food for others, but doesn’t eat it
- cuts down on portion sizes or shows other signs of highly limited eating and dieting
- cuts out ‘junk food’, and then cuts out major food groups like meat or dairy
- loses weight or goes up and down in weight.
You might notice that your child seems anxious or irritable, particularly around mealtimes.
You might notice that your child:
- avoids social activities, particularly ones that involve food
- goes to the bathroom or toilet straight after meals
- vomits or uses laxatives
- exercises too much, particularly while alone in the bedroom.
Friends, teachers or coaches might tell you that something doesn’t seem right with your child.
You should also be concerned if you notice changes in your child’s body that are signs of weight loss, decreased body fat and poor nutrition. These might include:
- irregular periods in your daughter, or her periods stopping altogether
- your child feeling tired or lacking energy all the time
- your child seeming to be cold all the time, even in warm weather
- your child complaining of feeling faint or dizzy, tired or constipated
- soft downy hair growing on your child’s face, arms or torso
- hair loss from your child’s head.
Swollen or puffy cheeks, damaged teeth or gums, and sores on the knuckles or hands might be signs that teenagers are making themselves vomit.
Talking with your child about disordered eating and eating disorders
If you notice any of the red flags above, you need to talk with your child and a health professional as soon as you can. If you just think that something isn’t right about the way your child is eating or behaving around food, trust your judgment and talk with your child.
It’s important to be sensitive, caring and non-judgmental when you talk with your child about food, weight and body image, but it could be a tricky conversation.
You might feel really worried, and your child might get angry and say that there isn’t a problem. Even if this happens, try to stay calm and send the message that you’re concerned about your child’s health and wellbeing, not your child’s weight and appearance. You might need to say that you think your child needs an assessment with a health professional.
If you’re not sure how to talk about these issues, you could first visit a doctor, dietitian or mental health professional and ask for help. Contacting one of the support organisations listed below is another option.
Getting help for eating disorders
Seeking an early assessment and opinion from a health professional is a really good idea.
Early intervention for disordered eating can stop problem eating turning into a full-blown eating disorder. Also, it might be easier to get your child to see a health professional now than further down the track. If you step in early, you might be able save your child from intensive treatment and a very long recovery time.
If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits, it’s a good idea to take your child to see a GP, dietitian or mental health professional as soon as you can. If possible, try to find a health professional who has experience in eating disorders.
Your GP can refer your child to a specialist eating disorders service if needed.
Why teenagers can be at risk of disordered eating and eating disorders
Adolescence can be a risky time for teenagers treating their bodies in unhealthy ways, as well as for disordered eating and eating disorders.
During adolescence, your child’s body and brain grow and develop very quickly. There are lots of changes going on in the way your child thinks, feels and relates to people. Many teenagers are more aware of body image, and start worrying about their shapes and sizes.
At the same time, your child needs more of the right kinds of food to support growth and development. Because teenagers are growing so much, it can be harder to keep up with their nutritional needs.
Lifestyle and food habits might change as your child begins to eat more meals and snacks away from home.
And this is also a time when young people are more aware of and influenced by media messages and information at school about health, obesity and dieting.
So you might notice some changes in your child’s eating habits and attitudes towards food, including:
- eating at random times and/or skipping meals
- eating more convenience foods and high-energy sugary snacks, including soft drinks and alcohol
- being more aware of media information about ‘healthy’ eating, obesity and diets
- experimenting with dieting and restrictive eating – that is, not eating certain foods or food groups.
The combination of all these things can lead some teenagers to start diets or develop eating habits that aren’t good for their growing bodies.
Other risk factors for eating disorders
We can’t link eating disorders to a particular gene, environment or personality type. But there are some factors that can make someone more at risk for developing an eating disorder.
These risk factors include:
We don’t know exactly why some children and teenagers develop eating disorders. If your child has an eating disorder, your love and support will be very important in helping your child get better.
State and territory eating disorders support services
For adolescent eating disorders support services in your state, contact either your specialist children’s hospital or a state-based service listed below.
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
- Lock, J., & Le Grange D. (2015). Help your teenager beat an eating disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
- Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m like, so fat. New York: Guildford Press.