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Ginny Duvall, nurse at Allegro Pediatrics, offers helpful information for families dealing with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are common and can be a lifelong challenge. They can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, or body type. It is important to understand that having an eating disorder is not a choice. Eating disorders are caused by complex interactions between genetic and environmental triggers.  An eating disorder can be a person’s way of coping with mental health issues, offering them a sense of control. During the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number and severity of young people suffering from eating disorders. Eating disorders impair an individual’s physical and mental health and can impact their relationships with friends and friends, as well as their performance at school and activities. If you suspect your child is dealing with an eating disorder, it is important to understand what they may be experiencing and how to help.

What are the different types of eating disorders?  

Some of the most common diagnoses are:  

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Distorted body image. Fear of gaining weight. Food restriction leading to body weight that is below healthy levels.  
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Recurrent binge eating followed by inappropriate behavior to prevent weight gain such as self-inducing vomiting, use of laxatives/diuretics/enemas, fasting, or excessive exercise. 
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): No interest or fear of eating certain foods. This leads to inadequate nutrition. 
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Eating excessive amounts of food, uncontrollably, often in secret. Feelings of disgust, embarrassment, guilt, or depression. 
  • Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) when an athlete eats less food than needed for daily energy use. Leads to poor performance, weak body and negative emotions.

Are there certain risk factors that contribute to an eating disorder? 

Eating disorders can develop in anyone. However, the following factors and traits can increase a person’s risk:

  • Genetics (a relative with an eating disorder) 
  • Past or present trauma 
  • Perfectionism or low self-esteem
  • Social media influences 
  • Competitive sports 
  • Difficulty communicating negative emotions or resolving conflict
  • Co-occurring anxiety or depression 

Events that may trigger an eating disorder:

  • Body and emotional changes during puberty
  • Identity conflicts
  • Independence and autonomy struggles

Are there things to look out for in kids’ behavior that may suggest an eating disorder? 

Eating disorders affect both the mind and the body. Some behaviors or symptoms that may suggest an eating disorder include: 

  • Secret eating
  • Excessive bathroom use 
  • Talking about food, calories, body shape, or comparing body sizes 
  • Talking about gaining muscle and decreasing body fat  
  • Excessive exercise 
  • Weight fluctuations (up or down) 
  • Using diet pills and/or supplements 
  • New onset of digestive problems, fatigue, hair loss, or brittle nails
  • Feeling dizzy 
  • Missed periods  

Where can you go for help? 

Your primary care provider (PCP) is available to confidentially discuss your concerns and to evaluate your child.  If a diagnosis is made, treatment requires medical monitoring by your pediatrician as well as support from professionals who specialize in nutrition and counseling. Children do best when families are involved in their recovery, so education is often the first step. Based on the severity of your child’s eating disorder, your PCP will recommend what level of care is best. Mild cases can be treated in the outpatient setting. Moderate or progressive cases require intensive outpatient program (IOP) or a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). Severe or unstable patients need to be hospitalized. Allegro has created a helpful resource guide for families dealing with an eating disorder. Some parents and patients find it helpful to join a support group.

How can you support your child at home while waiting for professional help? 

Due to higher demand than capacity in our area, many specialists and programs have waiting lists to be accepted for care. Your PCP will work with your family to develop a safe monitoring schedule to ensure your child remains medically stable while waiting for placement. Parents play an important role in helping their child heal. Home support can start immediately. In addition to educating yourself, consider the following:  

  • Plan and plate food as a family. This can help reduce challenges and anxiety around meals. 
  • Eat as a family. 
  • Encourage open communication and actively listen to the person with an eating disorder. 
  • Monitor bathroom use if the person with an eating disorder is purging. 
  • Encourage positive distractions that the person enjoys or used to enjoy.  

If you have any concerns that your child could have an eating disorder, please schedule a “new behavioral health concern” visit with your regular pediatrician.  Allegro Pediatrics is here to make sure your child is healthy and receiving balanced nutrition. 

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