The pandemic has not been kind to anyone’s mental health and, unfortunately, children’s mental health crises have been on the rise, including eating disorders. While anorexia, or a fear of gaining weight that usually presents as a restriction of food, is the eating disorder most talked about, binge eating disorder can also negatively impact your child’s life, causing life-long health problems. Here’s what to look for—and what to do—if you suspect your child may have binge eating disorder.
What are the signs of binge eating disorder?
The National Eating Disorder Association, which has a helpline and provides resources for those who need support for all types of eating disorders, defines binge eating disorder (BED), as “recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating.” They say it’s the most common eating disorder in the U.S. and it is recognized in the DSM, which is used to categorize mental illness (and get your insurance to pay for treatment).
Some things to look for in your child include:
- Fear about weight gain
- Weight fluctuation
- Gastrointestinal complaints (cramps, acid reflux, etc)
- Body checking (looking at the mirror or in windows at themselves frequently)
- Fear of or seeming uncomfortable eating around others
- Missing food around the house or large amounts of wrappers/containers
- Hoarding or hiding large quantities of preferred food
- Attempts to conceal excessive food consumption
- Dieting or new food habits or fads (i.e., veganism, cutting out carbs, etc)
- Signals that the child is unable to stop the excessive food consumption
- Food rituals (eating only at certain times or certain foods)
- Disruption of normal eating habits (eating throughout the day instead of at mealtimes, eating alone)
- Withdrawal from friends or activities
Please keep in mind that your child, especially a teenager, might gain a significant amount of weight around puberty and it is not necessarily a sign that they are binging, sometimes children grow taller before they grow wider or vice versa. Be careful not to impose your own possible disordered eating behaviors on your child and check in with your own body image bias.
What to do if you think your child has BED
Dr. Bill Hudenko, Global Head of Mental Health at K Health, says if you are concerned about your child having disordered eating behavior, “It is important to reach out to a pediatrician, nutritionist, or a mental health provider to determine if your child might meet criteria for binge eating disorder. In addition to the negative impacts that this disorder may have on your child’s body, early intervention will likely result in better treatment before the behaviors become too entrenched.”
The long-term effects of eating disorders include mental health implications, such as anxiety and depression, and life-long physical consequences such as metabolic health issues and cardiovascular health problems. Early treatment is vital.
If your child is diagnosed with BED, Hudenko says, “It is difficult to treat eating disorders because we all need food to survive. This of course means that you can’t eliminate eating all together, but rather you must work to alter the child’s eating habits to result in a healthier pattern.”
While you may have to try a few different treatments to find the one that works best for your child and family, Hudenko says, the “ideal treatment for binge eating disorder would involve consultation with a well-trained mental health provider who can help the family to evaluate their food culture. Interventions would likely include restricting access to some foods that are typically used to binge, development of alternate coping mechanisms if food is used to manage stress, and learning to slow the pace of eating while reading body signals of satiety.”
Many parents nowadays came from the age of low-fat and fad diets. We hope to spare our children the pain and heartache of our years of hating our bodies and wishing to be something else. By checking in on our kids and making sure to stay on top of potential eating disorders, we are giving them the gift of body acceptance and love that they can carry with them into adulthood.