Identifying Signs of Disordered Eating in Youth: Guidance for Parents and Caregivers

Calista Alma
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April 02, 2024

Spotting the signs of disordered eating in youth is crucial for parents and caregivers to address timely. In today’s era of social media, young people face relentless pressure from viral trends and toxic messages that distort perceptions of body image. This has led to a widespread manifestation of dissatisfaction with body shape among adolescents.

Eating disorders, encompassing conditions like anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, pose significant mental health challenges affecting approximately one million Canadians. Alarmingly, these disorders are on the rise among youth, with healthcare visits doubling during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The impact of eating disorders is profound, disrupting individuals’ relationship with food and causing distress about weight, shape, and size. Body image dissatisfaction and restrictive eating are common experiences for those affected. Importantly, eating disorders do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, or gender. However, individuals who do not conform to the stereotypical image of an eating disorder suffer from delayed recognition and diagnosis, particularly those from Black, Indigenous, and racialized backgrounds.

Eating disorders affect all facets of life and pose grave risks, including heart abnormalities, bone weakening, and anemia. Premature death rates are also elevated among individuals with eating disorders.

As professionals who specialize in working with youth and families affected by eating disorders or disordered eating, we offer practical guidance for parents and caregivers to recognize and support affected youth effectively.

To combat the rising trend of disordered eating among youth, it’s essential to be vigilant about identifying potential signs and symptoms:

Behaviors associated with disordered eating:

  • Excessive exercise for weight reduction or body shape alteration
  • Post-meal bathroom visits
  • Secretive eating
  • Food restriction, such as eliminating specific food groups
  • Fixation on weight loss or maintaining a low body weight
  • Excessive weighing due to body image dissatisfaction
  • Unusual food behaviors, like meticulous weighing/measuring or consuming large quantities of liquids during meals for calorie dilution

Physical indicators of disordered eating:

  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Delayed puberty or missed periods
  • Dental issues
  • Dizziness or fainting spells
  • Sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Abdominal discomfort

Social and psychological manifestations of disordered eating:

  • Personality shifts, including withdrawal and heightened irritability
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Arguments about food, eating, or weight
  • Avoidance of food-centric social events

Parents and caregivers should remain vigilant for sudden or drastic alterations in their child’s eating behaviors, such as extreme dieting, food avoidance, or fixation on weight control. Changes in meal patterns should also be monitored closely.

Physical changes like unexplained weight fluctuations, persistent fatigue, or mood swings warrant attention as potential indicators of underlying disordered eating issues.

Observing withdrawal from social situations involving food-related gatherings is another red flag.

In addition to monitoring social media usage, parents’ behavior significantly influences children’s attitudes toward food and body image. Therefore, it’s crucial for parents to refrain from weight-centric discussions and focus instead on promoting a healthy relationship with food and body image. Avoiding comments about physical appearances, weight, or body size—both for oneself and others—is advisable, with emphasis placed on health over aesthetics. Encouraging youth to develop positive attitudes toward food and their bodies is paramount.

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