Spotting Abnormal Eating Habits

In 2010 the NHS Information Centre reported that one in three hospital stays for eating disorders are among children, with children as young as ten being treated for conditions such as anorexia and bulimia. As eating disorders can affect children from all cultures and backgrounds, it is important for every parent to develop an understanding of childhood eating disorders and learn to spot the most common signs and symptoms of these debilitating conditions.

girl picking at her foodWhat are the risk factors?

  • There are several possible causes of eating disorders in children.
  • Bullying can seriously undermine a child's self-esteem and many children experience taunts regarding their body size and shape -- whether they are overweight or not.
  • Genetic differences in physique and body form can lead to children comparing themselves unfavourably with others and in some this can trigger an obsession.
  • Eating disorders can sometimes be the result of a child struggling to come to terms with any emotional or physical abuse they may have suffered. Emotional problems within a family may also contribute to a child developing an eating disorder.
  • Many experts believe that images presented by the media can cause children to develop unrealistic impressions of what their body should look like. It is very easy for children to begin to associate success and happiness with having a very slender, or underweight, figure.

What are the signs of an eating disorder?

While eating disorders are more common in girls, an increasing number of boys are now also being diagnosed. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have produced an eating disorder fact sheet which helps parents to recognise the signs that their child may be suffering from anorexia or bulimia. Common signs include:

  • Weight loss or unusual weight changes.
  • Periods being irregular or stopping.
  • Missing meals, eating very little and avoiding 'fattening' foods.
  • Avoiding eating in public, secret eating.
  • Large amounts of food disappearing from the cupboards.
  • Believing they are fat when underweight.
  • Exercising excessively, often in secret.
  • Becoming preoccupied with food, cooking for other people, calorie counting and setting target weights.
  • Going to the bathroom or toilet immediately after meals.
  • Using laxatives and vomiting to control weight or sometimes other medications/herbal remedies to lose weight.

As sufferers of eating disorders can become very good at keeping their condition a secret, many of the signs listed above may not be immediately obvious. There are also many other forms of eating disorders, such as food refusal or extreme faddiness, which many children experience to some degree, but usually pass without any ill effect or need for treatment. If you have any concerns about your child's weight or eating habits, consult your GP or contact an agency listed at the end of this article for support and advice.

How can I help?

The way you tackle your child's eating disorder can dramatically increase or decrease their recovery time. Discussing your situation with an expert is vital as this will allow you to develop a deeper understanding of your child's disorder and help you explore some of the reasons why it may have occurred. This helpful list of dos and don'ts has been compiled by the eating disorder charity, Anorexia and Bulimia Care, and offers a useful guide to approaching your child's problem.


  • Do empathise with them – be clear that you understand how they feel.
  • Do let them correct you if they feel you have not quite understood.
  • Do let them talk.
  • Do try to focus on how they are feeling, NOT on what they are or are not eating.
  • Do help to find a way that they can see their GP. Perhaps it would help if you made the appointment, or went with them – or even if you spoke for them.
  • Do emphasise that you are in this with them and that you will work with them to help them to feel better and happier.


  • Don't make decisions for them. You can make suggestions, but the decision MUST come from them.
  • Issue ultimatums [e.g. 'If you don't go to the doctor I will tell your teachers/friend what is going on').
  • Tell lots of people unnecessarily.
  • Use emotional blackmail [e.g. 'Do you know what this is doing to me?']
  • Try to avoid getting into lots of arguments about food, calories, weight and fat. It's better to explore how they are feeling and the way forward.

Useful Links:

The Royal College of Psychiatrists
B-eat - the leading Eating Disorder Association
Anorexia and Bulimia Care

Uncovering an eating disorder

Melissa Pasch found herself struggling with food and body issues. Join Shay Pausa as we discover that an eating disorder is not always obvious!

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