Healthy Kids | The dangers of eating disorders

Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (restrictive eating disorder) and bulimia nervosa (recurrent binge-eating episodes). 

Eating disorders do not have a single, identifiable cause. There are many factors including psychological, poor self-esteem, dieting and personality traits which may increase the likelihood of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders. These are potentially fatal illnesses which require expert treatment by a variety of health professionals all working together with the child and parents. There is no simple cure and a variety of different treatments exist. They are characterised by abnormal eating, exercise and behavioural patterns with a preoccupation with weight or shape. 

It is estimated that one million Australians have an eating disorder, and this number is increasing. Eating disorders are increasingly being recognised in males. 

Anorexia nervosa may be triggered by a mental illness such as depression. A psychiatric assessment is essential because the underlying mental health condition needs to be diagnosed and treated appropriately for treatment to be successful. The warning signs are adolescents include becoming withdrawn, eating separately at meal times, becoming vegetarian, spending more time in the kitchen preparing meals, exercising hard, periods stopped (amenorrhea), wearing large baggy clothes and having cold hands and feet.

The diagnosis is very difficult to make since the child will usually angrily deny they are deliberately eating less, exercising more and trying very hard to lose weight. Early in the illness it may be incorrectly diagnosed as a prolonged viral illness such as glandular fever.

If a parent has concerns they should arrange a consultation with their family doctor.

Medical assessment involves measuring height and weight when lightly clothed, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and general medical check. The body mass index (BMI) should be calculated for age. 

The child should be referred to a dietician, paediatrician and mental health services including a psychiatrist and psychologist. Treatment is best done as an outpatient but occasionally treatment in hospital is required.

The family doctor should review the child's weight and vital signs at least every two weeks to ensure the child  not getting sicker and losing weight rapidly.

Your family doctor may order blood tests and an ECG (heart rhythm recording) to look for complications, but these tests cannot diagnose the condition or show the severity of the illness.

Sometimes the weight loss has been severe and the child or adolescent is medically unstable with abnormal medical vital signs and requires urgent admission to hospital for stabilisation and possibly tube feeding.

Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice, a diet gone wrong or a cry for attention. Early intervention is the best way to assist with successful recovery. It’s important to be aware of the warning signs that may indicate someone is developing or experiencing an eating disorder. Many people with an eating disorder do not realise they have a problem or if they do, they may go to extraordinary lengths to hide the signs.

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