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Nutritional Health|27 October 2022

Common eating disorders in kids

Written by Divya Gandhi
Founder/Owner/Dietitian at Diet and Cure Clinic with 10 Years of experience. Double Diploma from VLCC & IGNOU, BBA from IP University

Eating disorders in children can cause major changes in their eating habits that can negatively impact the functions of their body, and their emotional stability. 

Mostly, eating disorders in children include focusing intensely on weight, body shape and food choices, leading to harmful eating behaviors. The child’s ability to take appropriate nutrition is severely impacted. Eating disorders in children can turn their bodies into a powerhouse of diseases, to the extent of affecting their heart health, bones, digestive system, dental heath, and mental health. 

Types of common eating disorders in kids

1. Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by low weight, food restriction, body image disturbance, fear of gaining weight, and an overpowering desire to be thin. Children with anorexia nervosa commonly see themselves as overweight, although they are underweight, and often deny that they have a problem with low weight.

Some common themes for children with anorexia nervosa; a tendency to weigh themselves frequently, eating small amounts, only eating certain foods, exercising excessively, forcing themselves to vomit, control body shapes, etc. 

Apart form weight, anorexia may also be an unhealthy coping mechanism for emotional problems, perfectionism, and a desire for control. 

Sign and symptoms

  • A low body mass index for child’s age and height.
  • Amenorrhea, a symptom that occurs after prolonged weight loss, causing menstruation to stop.
  • Dry hair and skin, as well as hair thinning.
  • Massive fear of weight gain.
  • Rapid, continuous weight loss. 
  • Lanugo; soft, fine hair growing over the face and body.
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Orange discoloration of the skin, particularly the feet 
  • Halitosis; caused from vomiting or starvation-induced ketosis.
  • Abnormally low blood pressure (Hypotension)
  • Having severe aches, pains and muscle tension
  • Insomnia 
  • Feeling bloated 

2. Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa, commonly called bulimia, is a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Children with bulimia often tend to secretly binge eat large amounts of food with a loss of control over their eating, and then try to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way by purging or vomiting the food.

This eating disorder in children makes them want to get rid of calories and prevent weight gain. Kids with bulimia may use various methods like self-inducing vomiting, taking weight-loss supplements, diuretics or enemas after bingeing. They may also use ways like fasting, strict dieting or excessive exercise to prevent the weight gain.

Children with bulimia get obsessed with their weight and body shape, and may judge themselves severely or harshly for their self-perceived flaws. 

Signs and Symptoms

  • Constantly counting the number of calories consumed
  • An extreme consciousness of one’s weight
  • Low self-esteem  
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • An irregular menstrual cycle in women
  • Frequent bathroom visis, especially soon after eating
  • Anxiety and sleep disorders, depression. 
  • Overeating.
  • Excessive exercising.
  • Dry skin, hair, nails, and lips
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Digestive issues

3. Binge eating disorder

Kids with binge eating disorder usually consume large amounts of food very often, and do it in secret, but do not attempt to get rid of calories after overeating. 

They lose control over their eating and may feel guilty or embarrassed about their eating habits but are unable to stop themselves from bingeing. 

These children can be of average weight, overweight, or obese. This eating disorder in children may cause other mental health problems like depression, as well. Children with eating disorder of overeating may also have trouble coping with their emotions like anger, sadness, boredom, worry, and stress.

Signs and Symptoms 

Binge eating disorder barely has any physical symptoms. Though, this eating disorder in children has psychological symptoms such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Shame or guilt about overeating
  • Frequent dieting without weight loss

4. Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

Children with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder are unable to eat or deny eating particular foods, based on texture, color, taste, temperature, or aroma. Picky eating and a general disinterest in eating define ARFID the best. This condition may induce an irrational fear of pain, choking or vomiting in kids, when they eat. 

This eating disorder in children may lead to weight loss, inadequate growth, nutritional deficiencies, and an impaired psychosocial functioning such as an inability to eat with others. Unlike anorexia nervosa disorder, the kids with ARFID do not have weight or shape concerns, and there are barely any intentional efforts to lose weight.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Lack of vitamins, minerals, and protein in the body
  • Inadequate growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Dizziness and fainting due to low blood pressure 
  • A slow pulse
  • Dehydration
  • Weak bones and muscles
  • Amenorrhea; a condition that stops the mensuration cycle in girls 

5. Rumination eating disorder 

Rumination eating disorder is a condition in which undigested food is thrown back up from the stomach into the mouth (called regurgitation). The regurgitated food does not tend to taste sour or bitter due to a lack of time to fully mix with stomach acid and get digested. So, the person may chew, swallow, or spit that food. This behavior may occur after every meal. 

A sensation of burping/belching maybe felt. There is no nausea or retching. In this child eating disorder the food is not regurgitated due to any stomach illness or other sickness. This act of regurgitation can very well be consciously learnt or can also be unintentional by the affected kid.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Re-chewing food on a regular basis
  • Digestive problems
  • Dental problems
  • Weight loss
  • Dry lips

6. Pica eating disorder 

Pica eating disorder in children refers to craving and chewing substances that have no nutritional value, such as ice, clay, soil, soap, buttons, paper, chalk, dirt, etc. Or they might eat potentially harmful items, such as flakes of dried paint or pieces of metal.

Pica is most commonly witnessed in children and pregnant women. It can last for years, especially in children with intellectual disabilities. 

Prevalence and impact of child eating disorders

According to medical studies and experts, eating disorders in children fall under the category of the deadliest mental illnesses or psychiatric conditions. 

Approximately, 1 in 5 children die from suicide or other eating disorders related complications. 

The most common age for onset of eating disorders in children is between 12-25. Eating disorders are much more common among girls than boys. 

Also, studies show that while girls are more likely to have anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, eating disorders in boys most frequently involve binge eating.

How to prevent eating disorders in children?

The causes for these eating disorders are mostly unknown; except for they might be hereditary. So prevention is definitely better than cure in this scenario.

A general notion developed in parents about body image is usually passed on to their children. ‘How you perceive body image?’ is crucial in the development of your child’s attitude towards their body image, in their minds. So usually when a parent sees their child putting on weight they fear them struggling with this issue life-long and they tend to reflect their fear on the children. They may also frequently comment on their kid’s body weight, which may have an adverse impact.

5 constructive ways to prevent child eating disorders:

  1. Influence your child by maintaining healthy body-positivity. Use this as an opportunity to develop a healthier relationship with your own body, so you don’t perpetuate that feeling of shame and “not good enough” onto another generation.
  1. Educate your child about the difference between reel and real world. Highlight the fact how pervasive these photo-shopping tools are, and how the media presents an unrealistic image about body thinness and unrealistic expectations.
  1. Be a role model for healthy eating and exercising habits. A child tends to mirror their parents. So if you promote daily exercise and picking healthy food over junk in front of them, they would do the same.
  1. Stay updated with latest nutrition. Every second day, new eating items are introduced in the market by different brands. Being aware of the nutritional facts and healthy diet plans for your kid gives you an edge to maintain your child’s health.
  1. Avoid talking about dieting. A balanced diet goes a long way to prevent child eating disorder of overeating. Teach them the importance of consuming food in moderation. Eat healthfully yourself and lead by example. 

It would be perfect to say; appropriate nutrition is the key to a child’s adequate growth and good mental-physical health.

Eating disorders in children are not just a physical but also a psychological threat. But the good news is that these disorders are treatable. Yet prevention overpowers cure always. The health loss, due to child eating disorders, in growing years can cost your child’s proper growth, not to mention the dangers that the severity of eating disorders in children bring along.

The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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