Signs And Symptoms Of Eating Disorders In Children

Have you recently noticed your child eating tiny portions, eating in secret and exhibiting noticeable changes in weight? All these signs may indicate possible eating disorder in your child.

By Ashwin Dewan

Signs And Symptoms Of Eating Disorders In Children

According to Children's Health, eating disorders are characterised by an unhealthy approach to eating, weight and exercise. But, is this disorder prevalent in children?

Eating disorder refers to the habit of preferring a certain type of food and avoiding other kinds. Serious cases of eating disorder are manifested in the form of anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder (BED) in adolescents. Children between the ages of 3-6 years who suffer from eating disorders throw tantrums by refusing to eat certain foods. At times, they even dislike the smell of food.

Is eating disorder a psychological or emotional problem?

Eating disorders in children can be a mix of both physical and emotional problems. However, in children between the ages of 3-6 years, there are multiple factors to consider like distractions, irritability, or not wanting to eat.

A child who is a picky eater does not have an eating disorder. Parents need to be patient with the eating habits of their children. If a child is a picky eater, parents should try out new ways of feeding him. In some cases, it may even be a sign that the child is hesitant to try out new food items.

Age at which eating disorders are commonly seen in children

In general, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa are most commonly seen in adolescents. In anorexia, children conceptualise a well-defined body structure for themselves. This dictates their eating habits. However, in bulimia nervosa, children binge eat (with frequent puking), which leads them to obesity.

According to WebMD, the three main types of eating disorders in children are:

1. Anorexia: This condition is characterised by the child refusing to eat adequate calories out of an intense and irrational fear of becoming fat.

2. Bulimia: A child suffering from this type of eating disorder overeats and then purges the food through measures such as vomiting or using laxatives to prevent weight gain.

3. Binge eating: As the name indicates, this is defined by a child eating more food than needed but without purging.

One vital thing to keep in mind is the sleeping pattern in children, especially in the age group of 3-5 years. Sleep duration controls the amount of Leptin secreted by the body. Leptin is the hormone that signals satiety to the brain and thus suppresses appetite. Inadequate secretion of this hormone may lead to obesity.

Signs and symptoms of eating disorder in children

In children between the ages of 3-6 years, a picky eater cannot be judged as suffering from an eating disorder. There can be several reasons behind the child not eating certain kinds of food, but parents can look out for these predominant symptoms:

• Temper tantrums

• Irritability

• Repetitive and compulsive behaviour

• Skipping of meals

• Obsession with the number of calories in a certain food

• Excessive exercise routine

Tips to deal with eating disorders in children

It is difficult for parents to deal with eating disorder in their children, especially at an adolescent age. However, certain steps that can help can be followed such as:

• Parents should counsel teenagers and make them understand the importance of food and nutrition.

• For picky eaters between the age of 3-6 years, parents can make food fun. They can cut vegetables in different shapes and present food in a visually attractive manner. Make eating a fun process where your child will enjoy eating rather than spending time choosing food.

• Involve children in food preparations. Give them simple tasks like cutting vegetables, mixing water with flour to prepare dough, etc.

• Parents must make it a practice to eat together as a family so they can serve as role models for the child.

• You can teach your child to do little things like setting the table and preparing salads. Let him experiment with food under your supervision. This will help your child develop an interest in food.

Parents need to be flexible with children, especially when it comes to eating habits. Some children may eat slowly while others may play with the food before eating. Parents need to observe these habits to try and understand their child’s eating habits.

With inputs from Dr. Sundar C Ingaleshwar, Consultant – Pediatrician, Columbia Asia Referral Hospital, Yeshwanthpur, Bangalore and Dr. Arunita Biswas Srivastava, Consultant - Psychiatry, Columbia Asia Hospital.