How to Prevent Eating Disorders in Childhood

February 24, 2016 Published by

Eating disorders are described by the NHS as “an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour”. This can be due to an excessive focus on weight or shape.

Two of the most common eating disorders (source: NHS, Eating disorders) are:

Anorexia nervosa – when a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible; for example, by starving themselves or exercising excessively
Bulimia – when a person goes through periods of binge eating and is then deliberately sick or uses laxatives (medication to help empty the bowels) to try to control their weight

Eating disorders can cause serious health problems and, in extreme cases, death. There can be many reasons why someone may have an eating disorder – for example, they may have a poor body image, or may be trying to gain control over their lives (due to depression or stress) by controlling what they eat.
It’s easy to assume that children aren’t vulnerable to this, but actually, anyone can have an eating disorder. They usually develop during adolescence when children are going through physical changes, becoming more self-aware and are more vulnerable to social pressures.

Around 1,815 13-19 year olds were admitted to hospital with an eating disorder in the UK in 2014.
Children under the age of 13 can also be affected, but the number of cases are much lower (around 42 children under 10 were treated in 2014. However, encouraging healthy eating habits and good self-esteem from an early age may help reduce the risk as your child gets older.


How Can Parents Prevent Eating Disorders?

  • You are an important role model for your child. If you project a healthy body image, rather than complaining about your weight or ‘yo-yo’ dieting, your child is more likely to have a positive body image too.


  • Help your child understand the importance of being healthy, rather than focusing on size and shape. Everyone is different and it’s important they learn to love themselves for who they are.



  • Encourage family meal times so that you can monitor your child’s diet but also to develop a positive attitude around food, as they will learn to associate the quality family time with eating. This has the added bonus of giving you a chance to talk as a family, helping to build relationships and keep the lines of communication open, which will make it easier to confront your child with any issues they may come across.


  • Avoid arguments over food. If your child decides to become vegetarian, support them in that – it helps make them feel valued. Don’t panic over one skipped meal and let your child know it’s alright to eat when they’re hungry and refuse food, or leave food on their plate, when they’re not hungry.


  • Prepare healthy meals together so they learn to appreciate what nutrients their body needs. This also gives you quality time together, can help encourage an interest in food, and supports skills such as literacy (through reading recipes) and maths (by measuring ingredients).


  • Self-esteem is really important. Give your child praise when they deserve it and give them chances to build their confidence through achievable goals.



When to Worry

If you are concerned that your child may have an eating disorder, it is important to address the problem as soon as possible. We suggest talking to your child before taking any action, but be prepared for them to respond defensively – they may be in denial that they have a problem. Avoid accusing them of anything, but express your concerns and try to discuss them, and make an appointment to see your GP. If your child is not open to going to the doctor, you can visit your GP yourself to discuss other approaches and get more information.

parent-929940_960_720Symptoms of anorexia:

  • losing lots of weight
  • denying feeling hungry (saying they are not hungry even if they are)
  • exercising too much
  • feeling fat
  • withdrawing from social activities (not wanting to go to parties or out for dinner)


Symptoms of bulimia:

  • making excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • eating huge amounts of food without weight gain
  • using laxatives or diuretics
  • withdrawing from social activities


(Source: Kids Health, Kids and Eating Disorders)


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This post was written by Anna Taylor

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