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Eating Disorders in Children: What Parents Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 20, 2023

Eating Disorders in Children: What Parents Need To Know

Often, we associate eating disorders with women, but did you know that they can affect kids, too? Eating disorders refer to concerns with the way people eat. These unusual eating behaviors not only influence the child’s physical health but also affect their emotions and relationships. What are the common eating disorders in children, and how can parents intervene?

Anorexia Nervosa

The children’s eating disorders include anorexia nervosa or, simply, anorexia.

Kids with anorexia have symptoms that point to “self-starvation.” In other words, parents may observe that they are not eating when they should. Other symptoms include:

  • Low weight; usually, their weight is less than 85% of the normal weight for their age and height.
  • Unusual eating behaviors, like using utensils to eat raisins, paying too much attention to food preparation, etc.
  • Intense worry of weight gain.
  • Distorted body image; they believe they are fat even when they are underweight.
  • Denying that they are hungry
  • For adolescent girls, absence of 3 consecutive menstrual cycles at least.

Eating disorders in children often result in other physical symptoms. In the case of anorexia, the lack of calories and nutrients in the body can lead to dehydration, dry skin, constipation, fatigue, and the inability to stay warm. This may even cause cognitive difficulties, especially if chronically untreated.

Bulimia Nervosa

The children’s eating disorders also include bulimia nervosa or simply bulimia.

Kids with bulimia have two distinct eating habits: binge eating and purging. Binge eating occurs when the child consumes a large amount of food in a short period (typically less than 2 hours). Purging refers to the way they compensate for overeating, like forcing themselves to vomit.

The other signs and symptoms of bulimia are:

  • Usually secretive binge eating and purging.
  • Normal or low weight in actuality, but often, they see themselves as ironically overweight.
  • Excessive physical activity.
  • Excessive fasting
  • Dissatisfaction with their body image.
  • Wound or irritation at the back of the throat due to forced vomiting behavior.
  • Irregular or missed menstruation for adolescent girls.

eating disorders in children

Binge Eating Disorder

Next on our list of eating disorders in children is binge eating.

This condition is similar to bulimia because children often eat large amounts of foods in such a short period. Usually, they do this secretly, so others will not know how much they are eating.

The difference lies in the fact that kids with binge-eating disorder do not compensate for overeating. They do not force themselves to throw up, nor do they excessively perform regular physical activities.

Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Consuming large amounts of food even when they aren’t hungry.
  • Feeling guilty after binge eating.
  • Weight gain or overweight.

Should your child binge eat at least once a week within 3 months, he or she may have binge-eating disorder.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

And the last one of the eating disorders in children is avoidant restrictive food intake disorder or ARFID.

A child with ARFID typically does not have a poor body image and is not frightened of gaining weight. However, they don’t show interest in food and avoid it. Reasons for the avoidance vary, but it can be because:

  • They don’t like the food’s smell, taste, color, or texture.
  • They are scared that they will choke on food.

How Can Parents Intervene

Parents need to bring their children to the pediatrician should they observe signs of eating disorders in them. This is because an eating disorder is a serious mental health issue that needs medical attention.

Furthermore, unmanaged eating disorders in children can negatively impact the child’s physical, intellectual and emotional health. For instance, anorexia can lead to heart problems like arrhythmias and low blood pressure. On the other hand, kids with bulimia may have low self-esteem and later have thoughts of hurting themselves.

Key Takeaways

Eating disorders in children are serious mental health issues that need medical intervention. When unaddressed, it can lead to various physical and emotional complications.

While there’s still no way to prevent eating disorders, early diagnosis and management can significantly reduce the severity of symptoms.

Learn more about Behavioral and Developmental Disorders here. 


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 20, 2023

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