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Signs your child may have an eating disorder

Although eating disorders are very serious, they are treatable. With proper intervention, your child can lead a happy and healthy life.

It can be difficult knowing if your child is just a fussy eater, or if they suffer from an eating disorder.

In recent years, eating disorders in youngsters have become more common. Doctors and psychologists are now discovering a variety of explanations for these diseases, which are surfacing at disturbingly young ages. Children with eating issues can have catastrophic consequences. They start with tiny changes in eating habits that quickly escalate into major health issues. Major health problems can develop over time and become life-threatening.

Categories of eating disorders

Eating disorders can be divided into three categories: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. 


Anorexia is a condition in which a youngster refuses to eat because they are afraid of becoming overweight. This anxiety is frequently strong and illogical. Even if the youngster loses weight, they will continue to eat in moderation for fear of regaining it. Anorexia affects around one out of every 25 girls and women, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.


Bulimia is a disorder in which a youngster binges, or overeats, and then vomits the excess food. Laxatives can also be used to keep from gaining weight.

Binge eating

Binge eating occurs when a child consumes a large amount of food in a short period of time without emptying his or her stomach.

Eating disorders can affect both girls and boys

While it is more prevalent in girls, boys can show signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Knowing what to look for will help you find the problems early on. The sooner an eating disorder is diagnosed, the easier it is to begin both the physical and psychological treatment that will help the child return to a normal lifestyle. Some children may even have eating disorders that overlap. An example of this would be a child who shows signs of anorexia, but then become bulimic, continuing to alternate between the two. While these eating disorders often develop during adolescence or early adulthood, they are not unheard of during childhood.

What causes eating disorders?

Eating disorders can be caused by a combination of biological, behavioural, and social factors, though there is no exact known cause. Peer pressure is thought to play an important role in some of these causes. Children are often influenced by each other and by what they feel is expected of them in society. Self-image also plays an important role in the cause of eating disorders. If a child believes she is supposed to look a certain way, she may feel unable to live up to the expectations of those around her.

Possible signs and symptoms of eating disorders

There are several symptoms to look for if you fear your child may be suffering from one or more eating disorders. They include:

  • Distress
  • Constant fear of becoming overweight
  • Low self-esteem
  • Ongoing anxiety and depression
  • Avoiding meals
  • Eating in secret
  • Monitoring the number of chews or amount of time it takes to eat something
  • Hiding food that hasn’t been eaten

Where to get help

If you feel your child is overeating or not eating enough, it may be time to seek professional advice and treatment. The following helplines can be useful:

  • Childline South Africa: 08 000 55 555 24 Hrs
  • LifeLine South Africa: 0861 322 322
  • The South African Depression And Anxiety Group (SADAG): 011 234 4837

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