Eating Disorders in Children

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Eating disorders in children are prolonged changes in eating habits that can lead to serious health issues.

These generally fall into two types:

  • Anorexia, in which the child avoids or severely limits their eating, which may lead to dangerous weight loss
  • Bulimia, in which the child overeats or binges, possibly followed by self-induced vomiting

Some children alternate between these two.

Causes of Eating Disorders

While the causes of eating disorders aren’t clear, many children adopt harmful eating habits to cope with biological, social or emotional factors. Sometimes substance abuse plays a role.

Many children and teens with eating disorders struggle with one or more of the following:

  • Anxiety or distress
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Fear of becoming overweight
  • Helplessness
  • Depression

Eating disorders can occur in both girls and boys, but they occur mostly in girls.

Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Children

The symptoms of eating disorders vary depending on the child and the type of disorder. Generally, they include an unusual level of concern over physical appearance and weight.

Symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Harsh self-criticism
  • Rapid weight loss or emaciation
  • Dieting and strict controlling of food intake, despite appearing thin
  • Excessive or compulsive exercising
  • Intense concerns over weight
  • Changes in menstruation
  • Strange eating habits
  • Symptoms of malnourishment, such as dehydration, lethargy, dizziness and gastric issues

In addition to the above, bulimia symptoms may include:

  • Eating large amounts of food
  • Frequent or secretive vomiting, especially after meals
  • Abusing laxatives or other methods of controlling weight
  • Substance abuse
  • Regularly spending excessive time in the bathroom following meals

Eating disorders can lead to serious health complications if not treated, like:

  • Heart damage
  • Anemia
  • Gastric issues
  • Low hormone levels or delayed growth
  • Damage to the throat, stomach and bowels
  • Dehydration
  • Tooth decay

Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA Health Children's

At UVA Health Children's, a mental health provider will evaluate your child and help design an individualized treatment program.

Treatment may include:

  • Individual or family therapy
  • Nutritional education and rehabilitation with a pediatric dietitian
  • Medications to treat anxiety or depression