At least 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. More than 2 million are children between the ages of 13-18.

“We think that up to 40 percent of girls, but also boys, will pass through phases of weird eating during middle and high school,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. “The real question is, ‘When does it get to the point that a parent needs to be worried?'”

Identifying the signs of an eating disorder
There are three main types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia: A person refuses to eat adequate calories out of an intense fear of becoming fat.
  • Bulimia: A person grossly overeats, often referred to as binging, and then purges the food by vomiting or using laxatives to prevent weight gain.
  • Binge eating: A person gorges on food, but without purging.

“Eating disorders are more common these days, and they are becoming more diagnosed,” says pediatric nutritionist Patty Fahlstrom.

Specializing in eating disorders for more than 20 years, Patty says there are signs parents should watch for that could signal a child is developing unhealthy issues with food.

“Have their eating habits drastically changed in the last couple weeks or a month? Have they stopped eating things that they absolutely loved their entire life?”

In addition to restricting food:

  • Is your child withdrawn, irritable, depressed or acting odd?
  • Do you notice that they don’t want to eat with family or go out to restaurants?
  • Do they take food to their rooms, when that’s not a usual pattern for them?
  • Do they eat volumes of food and then disappear quickly after a meal?

“Eating disorders are not primarily about food,” says Dr. Bradshaw. “There are complex factors, like body image and unhappiness with other parts of their life that they don’t have control of, so they take control of how they’re eating.”

Helping a child with an eating disorder
Treatment is needed to overcome an eating disorder, not only to help restore normal weight and eating habits, but to address underlying psychological issues causing the disorder. The best results occur when eating disorders are addressed at the earliest stages.

“If you notice your child is developing unusual behaviors around food, see your pediatrician quickly,” Patty says. “Because the faster we can get on top of an eating disorder, the better their chances are of full recovery.”