Disordered Eating or Eating Disorder – Guide for Parents

By January 16, 2014 Blog, parents No Comments

Disordered Eating or Eating Disorder

Published in Montana Parent (February 2014)

by Paige Reddan, RD

By the age of ten, there is a 50% chance that that your daughter has decided that her body needs improvement and has already tried dieting to lose weight.  Body dissatisfaction at such a young age begins for a number of reasons: unrealistic body ideals portrayed in our media (extremely thin celebrities, photoshopped models); family members talking about their own body dissatisfaction, Mom dieting, dad working out or commenting on Mom’s dieting); families adopting eating strategies promoted by the diet industry (low carb, no fat); and using food to manage feelings to control emotions and stress. Today, we find ourselves immersed in a sea of disordered eating symptoms we call “cleanses”,  “detox”, “clean eating”, “raw diets” not to mention a pharmacopoeia promising effortless weight loss. Our girls (and increasingly, boys) watch and take note. The level of dissatisfaction we have in our own bodies greatly effects they way they feel about theirs.

Adolescence is defined by self-consciousness and a “measuring up.” Body image becomes paramount during a time of dramatic physical change and increased social pressures. Success at innocent weight loss often brings much needed attention and can lead to more efforts at weight loss. What appeared to be an innocent attempt at dropping a few unwanted pounds can result in obsessive behaviors and unusual eating habits disrupting normal body functions and daily activities. Disordered eating can evolve into a full blown eating disorder before parents can say “anorexia”.

These are signs to look for in your adolescent that point todisordered eating:

Frequent dieting

Fear of gaining weight

Weighing daily

Fasting or juice cleanses to lose weight


Cutting entire food groups from your diet

Eating the same “safe” foods every day

Extreme calorie restriction

Thinking or talking about food all the time

Obsessive calorie counting

Skipping meals

Smoking for weight loss

Lying about how much was eaten

Consistently overeating

Eating a lot of no- or low-calorie foods

Labeling foods good or bad

Visiting pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia websites

Adopting a vegetarian diet solely for weight loss

Left unchecked, disordered eating can become an eating disorder. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are major medical and mental health issues affecting millions of girls and women, as well as boys and men, in the United States. They are generally a relentless pursuit of thinness through secret episodes of dieting and binging to the neglect of other life accomplishments. Eating disorders carry with them extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors around food , body weight and body image that can have life-threatening consequences.

Research finds that eating disorders are caused by a number of factors that fit together like puzzle pieces. They include genetics, temperament, relationships, trauma/loss and culture.  It is often said “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger”. Once the adolescent brain is hijacked by the resulting malnourishment and obsessive behaviors of the eating disorder it becomes very difficult to bring it back without medical intervention.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

Intense fear of “being fat” and weight gain

Feeling of being” fat” despite dramatic weight loss

Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Excessive exercise

Following strict food rules

Loss of menstrual period


Symptoms of bulimia include:

Repeated episodes of binging and purging

Feeling out of control while binging beyond comfortable fullness

Purging by self induced vomiting, laxative use, or excessive exercise

Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Following strict food rules

Frequent dieting

Parents can help prevent their children from developing disordered eating by looking at their own beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors about appearance and nutrition. If an eating disorder has already taken hold it is time to seek proper medical care to begin the brain and body recovery process. The sooner an eating disorder is put in check the greater the chance of full recovery.