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Kids and Eating Disorders

Humans need food and water to live. Kids especially need to eat healthy food — and enough of it — to grow and develop.

But for some kids, they might hear someone say that food makes them " fat" or they might start to worry about their bodies and how they look — and some kids stop eating right, eat too little, or try to make themselves throw up after they eat.

Dangerous Habits

Not eating right can make kids sick. Not eating enough food or eating food and then throwing up can cause problems with growing and developing in a healthy way. If this goes on for a long time, kids can get very sick and need to go to hospital to be fed through a tube in their nose.

In some extreme cases, people can't stop dieting and get so thin and so sick that it can even lead to death. Why, then, would anyone do it? Well, there isn't just one answer — there are many.

Some say it's because there are lots of very thin models and movie or TV stars. We see these people's bodies on TV, the Internet, or in a magazine and might feel that we want to look like that, too, because they seem rich and happy all the time.

A lot of us wish we looked more like celebrities or thinner friends — there's nothing wrong with wanting to be slimmer, healthier, or happier. Most kids just enjoy looking at pictures of famous people and seeing them on TV, but it doesn't make them change their own lives.

But sometimes this wish to be thin, or assuming that all thin people are happy, can lead to some dangerous thinking and behavior when it comes to food. Some people go on a diet, which means they start eating less food — and sometimes dieting can get out of control. Some kids at school might start competing about how little they have eaten that day. Some brag about not being hungry or not needing to eat. But this can be the start of unhealthy eating problems.

Anyone can have an eating disorder: boys and girls, kids, teens, and adults. Let's find out more about eating disorders.

What Is Anorexia?

You've probably heard about anorexia, which is also called anorexia nervosa (say: an-uh-rek-see-uh nur-voh-suh). With this problem, the main thing is that someone becomes very afraid of gaining weight and also thinks his or her body is too fat (even if the person is thin). Some people just lose a lot of weight by extreme dieting (not eating enough), and some also might make themselves vomit after they eat.

People with anorexia also might be sad, angry, or depressed or feel worried a lot of the time. It's important for someone with anorexia to work with a doctor, therapist, and nutritionist, as well as his or her family to get better.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

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

What Is Bulimia?

Instead of starving themselves, people who have bulimia nervosa (say: boo-lee-mee-uh nur-voh-suh) will binge and purge. That means they will binge (that is, eat a huge amount of food, like a tub of ice cream, then a big bag of chips, then a box of cookies in 2 hours or so), then purge (try to get rid of it by vomiting or taking laxatives and exercising a lot to burn the calories, usually in secret).

Kids who have bulimia might feel they can't get control over what they eat or other things in their lives. Bingeing and purging can be a way for them to have some control.

Kids sometimes develop bulimia when something new or stressful enters their life, like a move to a new town or a parents' divorce. Kids with bulimia sometimes can be harder to spot than kids with anorexia because their weight is often in the healthy range of what's normal.

Some of the symptoms that kids with bulimia might have include:

  • making excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • eating huge amounts of food without weight gain
  • using laxatives or diuretics (medicine that makes you poop and pee)
  • withdrawing from social activities

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There really is no single cause for an eating disorder. Most kids who develop anorexia do so between the ages of 11 and 14 (although it can start as early as age 7), and there are many reasons why. Some kids just don't feel good about themselves on the inside and this makes them try to change the outside. They might be depressed or stressed about things and feel as though they have no control over their lives. They see what they eat (or don't eat) as something that they can control.

Sometimes kids involved in certain sports might feel they need to change their body or be thin to compete. Girls get involved in competitive gymnastics, cheerleading, or beauty or modeling pageants also might be more likely to develop an eating disorder. All of these girls know their bodies are being watched closely, and they may develop problems if they try to make their bodies more "perfect."

When boys develop eating disorders, it's usually because they're in a sport that emphasizes weight, such as wrestling. Wrestlers compete based on weight classes. For instance, there's one class for 75-pound boys and another for 80-pound boys. Wrestlers feel pressure to stay in their weight class, which is called "making weight."

Eating disorders also may run in families, which means if someone in your family has one, you might be at risk for developing one, too. Kids might be more likely to develop an eating disorder if a parent is very concerned with or complains a lot about his or her own appearance or body.

Can Somebody Catch an Eating Disorder?

You can't catch an eating disorder from someone the way you can catch a cold. But the friends who you spend time with can influence you and how you see yourself. If your friends think the most important thing is to be thin, you may start to feel that way, too. And if they are doing unhealthy things to be thin, you might feel pressure to do so, too.

Eating Disorders Do Damage

No one wants to be overweight, but your body needs some fat to be healthy and grow, especially during your childhood and teen years. Someone whose weight gets too low will start having health problems. If this goes on too long, those problems may be severe and very dangerous.

Anorexia may do damage to the heart, liver, and kidneys. A girl with anorexia may be delayed in getting her period or stop getting her period. Breathing, blood pressure, and pulse also may drop — this is the body's way of shifting into low gear to protect itself. Fingernails may break and hair may fall out, too.

Kids with anorexia often do not feel well — they suffer from headaches, dizziness, and concentration difficulties. They also may become withdrawn and moody. Do you get cranky if you're hungry? Imagine if you kept not eating or not eating right!

Kids with anorexia also can feel cold all the time — even in warm weather — because they don't have enough body fat to keep them warm. Sometimes, this leads kids to wear a lot of layers of clothing — to keep warm — and sometimes they are trying to hide how their body looks to other people.

For kids with bulimia, the most serious problem is that their purging means a loss of potassium, an important nutrient. Potassium is found in foods such as bananas, tomatoes, beans, and melons. Too little potassium can lead to dangerous heart problems.

Someone who has bulimia might have problems with tooth decay because puke is acidic. Too much throwing up also can cause "chipmunk cheeks," when glands in the cheeks actually expand.

People with bulimia also may damage their stomachs and kidneys and have constant stomach pain. Like girls with anorexia, girls with bulimia also may stop menstruating.

In addition to the health problems, kids who have an eating disorder probably are not having much fun. Typically, these kids miss out on good times because they pull away from friends and keep to themselves. They don't want to have pizza with their friends or enjoy a birthday party.

Signs of Eating Disorders

Weight loss is not normal, or healthy, for kids because they are growing. If you or someone you know is losing weight, you should talk with a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult that you trust.

If a friend is skipping meals, becomes obsessed with how many calories are in food, wears excessively baggy or layered clothing all the time, or starts exercising compulsively, these may be additional signs something is wrong.

With bulimia, the signs would be someone who's storing or buying a lot of food, then hiding out to binge and purge.

Getting Well

Talking about having a problem and getting help is the first step to getting back to being healthy again. It's important to take action as soon as possible.

Someone with an eating disorder may see a doctor, a dietitian, and a counselor or therapist. Together, the team can help the person achieve the goals of reaching a healthy weight, following a nutritious diet, and feeling good about himself or herself again.

Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2011

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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