What are eating disorders and disordered eating?
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that also affect physical health.
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
- avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which is when someone eats only a small range or amount of food and doesn't get all the nutrients they need
- binge eating disorder, which is when someone eats very large amounts of food and feels distressed about their eating, but doesn’t try 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. Disordered eating can be just as serious as the other eating disorders, and it needs treatment too. Someone with disordered eating might be at risk of developing an eating disorder.
Although girls are most at risk of eating disorders, boys can develop them too. 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, physical health and appearance 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 teenagers of any size 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’ or 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.
Physical health and appearance
You should also be concerned if you notice physical changes in your child, including:
- irregular periods in your daughter, or her periods stopping altogether
- tiredness or lack of energy all the time
- complaints about being cold all the time, even in warm weather
- faintness or dizziness
- 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 to see a health professional.
If you’re not sure how to talk about these issues, you could first visit your GP or mental health professional and ask for help. Contacting a support organisation for eating disorders is another option.
If your child has an eating disorder, your love and support will be very important in helping your child get better.
Getting help for eating disorders
If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits, it’s a good idea to take your child to see a GP or mental health professional as soon as possible.
If possible, try to find a health professional who has experience in eating disorders. Your GP can refer your child if necessary.
Early intervention for disordered eating can stop problem eating turning into a more severe eating disorder. It might save your child from intensive treatment and a very long recovery. Also, it might be easier to get your child to see a health professional now rather than later.
Support services for eating disorders
For adolescent eating disorders support services in your state, contact your specialist children’s hospital.
For information about support and treatment services for eating disorders, you can also contact:
- Butterfly Foundation, Australia’s national foundation for eating disorders
- InsideOut, Australia’s national institute for eating disorders.
If you’re concerned about an eating disorder or body image issue, you can get free support from a qualified counsellor by calling Butterfly Foundation’s national helpline on 1800 334 673, 8 am-midnight, seven days a week. You can also contact the helpline using email or webchat.
Why teenagers can be at risk of disordered eating and eating disorders
We don’t know why some children develop eating disorders. But adolescence can be a risky time for teenagers treating their bodies in unhealthy ways.
During adolescence, your child’s body and your child’s 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.
At the same time, your child needs more of the right kinds of food. But it can be harder to keep up with teenage nutritional needs because they’re growing so fast.
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 and drinks
- being more aware of 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 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 put young people at higher risk of developing an eating disorder.
These risk factors include: