Is It a Diet or an Eating Disorder?

Is It a Diet or an Eating Disorder

Find out if your child has an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

Your teenager is obsessed with losing weight, although she looks fine to you. She skips meals and won’t drink milk because she thinks it’s fattening. Is this a passing phase or an eating disorder?

Parents often dismiss a teen’s poor eating habits as unimportant or just part of growing up. But dieting can actually lead to harmful or even life-threatening conditions if your teen does not need to lose weight.

Eating disorders and unnecessary dieting are both major problems among teenagers. Both are unhealthy approaches to eating that can be dangerous. Dieting may involve:

  • Missing meals often
  • Taking diet pills
  • Cutting out whole groups of food
  • Repeated cycles of gaining and losing weight (yo-yo dieting)

Dieting can cause a teen to miss important vitamins and minerals needed for lifelong health. And an obsession with weight and appearance can set a teen up for an eating disorder. Teens who have eating disorders run the risk of serious malnutrition, dehydration, heart disease, heart attack or even death.

Eating disorders are not triggered just by a desire to be thin. People with eating disorders tend to use food to:

  • Gain a sense of control when they feel out of control
  • Gain a sense of self-esteem and self-worth
  • Manage depression
  • Express anger and rebellion

Eating disorders are most common in girls and young women. But boys and men can also have eating disorders. Teens involved in sports that restrict weight (such as gymnastics, ballet and wrestling) may be at special risk.

Spotting an eating disorder

How can you tell if dieting has gone too far? Be on the lookout for the warning signs of eating disorders. The most common ones are anorexia and bulimia.

People who have anorexia lose a dramatic amount of weight. A person with anorexia may:

  • Eat very little
  • Say she is fat even though she’s very thin
  • Have an intense fear of body fat and weight gain
  • Obsess about food, calories and fat grams
  • Stop having periods
  • Lie about food
  • Feel weak and tired, and may faint
  • Have cold hands and feet
  • Have thinning hair and dry skin

 People who have bulimia may be a normal size and weight. This makes the problem harder to spot. A person with bulimia may:

  • Binge and purge. That is, she will get rid of food that she has just eaten by vomiting or taking laxatives or diuretics (water pills).
  • Have a fear of being fat.
  • Prefer to eat alone.
  • Go to the bathroom right after she eats.
  • Have a rigid exercise routine.
  • Have swelling in her cheeks or jaw.
  • Have a constant sore throat.
  • Have calluses on her knuckles (from inducing vomiting).
  • Have stained or discolored teeth.

If you think your child has slipped from dieting into an eating disorder, take action right away. Eating disorders are complex, but they can be treated. Early diagnosis and treatment can help protect your child’s health and help keep an eating disorder from becoming a long-term problem.

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