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Eating Disorders: What Families Need to Know

What do I need to know about eating disorders?

Most importantly, you should know that eating disorders require medical attention.

The two best-known types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.  They can occur separately or together in the same person.  A person who has an eating disorder is not always skinny.  Some people with eating disorders are even overweight.  Binge eating disorder is another kind of eating disorder.

Can men and boys have eating disorders?
Eating disorders most often affect girls and women, but boys and men can also have an eating disorder.  One out of every four pre-teen kids with anorexia is a boy.  Binge eating disorder affects females and males about equally. teen wrestler

What is anorexia nervosa?
To be diagnosed with anorexia, a person would:

Anorexia usually affects teens, and mostly girls.  An estimated 1% of white females have anorexia nervosa.  It is more common among people in higher income groups, and in groups that value thinness (like athletes, ballet dancers and models).  It usually starts around ages 13-14 or ages 17-18.

What is bulimia?
To receive a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa, a person would:

People with bulimia may be anywhere from underweight, to normal weight, to overweight.  It is estimated that as much as 3% of college-aged women have bulimia. 

What is binge eating disorder?
Binge eating disorder is diagnosed when a person:

Binge eating disorder does not include the purging consistent with anorexia and bulimia.  It may be the most common eating disorder.  About 40% of obese people may have this problem. 

What causes eating disorders? ballerina legs
We don’t know for sure. Many factors working together may lead to eating disorders. Dieting is a risk factor, with the greatest risk to severe dieters.  Around two-thirds of new cases of eating disorder are in girls and women who have dieted [1].

Is an eating disorder dangerous to my child’s health?
Eating disorders can cause many dangerous medical and mental illnesses.  

Is it dangerous to use medications to lose weight?
The products a person might use to lose weight can be very unsafe.  The regular use of diuretics (water pills), laxatives, and weight loss pills can cause life-threatening problems.  And they don’t even work that well for weight loss.  Using syrup of ipecac to cause vomiting can also lead to severe illness or death.

Should I worry if my child is on a diet to lose weight?
Most kids and teens do not need a restrictive diet.  Limiting eating to control weight not only doesn’t work, but in fact, dieting promotes weight gain in tweens and teens [2].  Reading dieting advice in magazines may lead to later unhealthy weight loss behavior in girls.
Read up on dieting vs. smart eating habits:

How can I tell whether my child has a healthy weight?
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, you should take them to see their doctor.  There are some different measurements the doctor may take. 

How can I tell if my child might have an eating disorder?
Look for these behaviors, signs and symptoms:

If your child has some of these signs, you should bring them to the doctor right away.  Your doctor can rule out diseases that can appear to be eating disorders.  If an eating disorder is not treated, it can become life threatening. 

How can I help my child?

How are eating disorders treated?  How can I get my child started in treatment?
The first goal in treating severe anorexia is to improve your child’s nutrition and eating habits.  Then, the goals will focus on learning about nutrition and normal eating patterns, improving self-esteem, relating to others, interacting with family, and treating medical and other psychological problems. 

What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)?
Your child may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).  Having BDD means thinking about what you look like much more than normal.  It also involves thinking too much about real or imagined defects in how you look.  It is a kind of distorted thinking.  It affects males and females about equally. 

If you think your child has BDD or body image problems, you should talk to your child’s doctor.  Your child’s health care provider can refer you to someone who can help.  It’s best to see someone with expertise in treating BDD.  It’s also helpful to see someone who treats obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), since OCD and BDD often overlap. 

What can we do to help prevent these problems?
You may feel you want to protect your child from the hurt of being teased about their weight.  Unfortunately, focusing on your child's body may do more harm than good. Your child may begin to value themselves solely on what they look like.  They may feel they have to look a certain way to gain approval and acceptance.  Do not stress what your child looks like.  Instead, put the focus on your child’s inner qualities. 

Pay attention to the messages you send your child about appearance and weight.  Do you constantly diet, and talk about “good foods” and “bad foods?”  Do you make negative comments about your own body in front of your child?  Make your home a place to learn healthy family picnicattitudes about food and body image.  Stop the dieting, and instead focus on eating and serving healthy foods. Make sure your family eats breakfast, and share family meals as often as possible.

It may also help to discourage your daughter from reading many women’s fashion magazines and from seeking out other media that portray underweight women as being glamorous. Discuss media images of “ideal bodies” with your children.  Teach your kids to be media literate, which will help protect them from harmful messages about food, eating, and body size from TV, music videos, magazines, and ads.

What are some recommended books?

Where can I find out more or find help?

Related resources on YourChild:

Ann Arbor area local resources:


Organizations and information/support websites:


Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN.  Reviewed by David Rosen, MD, MPH.

Updated October 2010


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U-M Health System Related Sites and Services:
Eating Disorders Program
Department of Psychiatry
U-M Pediatrics


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