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Everything You Need to Know About Eating Disorders in Children

The coping mechanisms we provide kids with can guide them through the rest of their lives and, considering that eating disorders often stem from childhood experiences, it’s no surprise that food, and the purposes for which we use food, can set your child up for success – or failure.

Here’s what you need to know to get it right.

How sugar contributes to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

We are currently undergoing a global mental health crisis, with anxiety rates at an all-time high – 7% of the global population are suffering, according to the World Health Organisation. Kids are no exception, with anxiety coming in as the most common mental illness, affecting 6.9% of school-aged children.

Sugar is one of the factors affecting mental health, and research has shown that intake of this ubiquitous substance can raise stress levels and lead to mood disorders like depression. One such study found that people who drank 2 soft drinks a day had levels of cortisol, a stress hormone,  22% higher than those who gave the drinks a miss.

To make matters worse, sugar triggers the brain’s reward system, making recovery from eating disorders and other mental health conditions even harder – especially for children. With an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, kids lack the impulse control that only fully develops by the age of 25, putting them at higher risk of developing metabolic diseases.

Obesity is often caused by underlying mental health issues, with the World Health Organisation revealing those with ADHD are more likely to go on to develop this condition. Other conditions also have a close relationship with disordered eating, with binge eating being the most common eating disorder for women with type 2 diabetes. This is because binge eating throws blood sugar levels out of whack, and when we combine this with the addictive nature of sugar, it’s clear to see the link between these conditions.

Have a look at few of the most common eating disorders:

Binge-eating disorder.

This one makes up the most common disorder, affecting 47% of Aussies with an eating disorder. It also happens to one of the few eating disorders with cases divided evenly among men and women. It involves consuming food excessively, often in a short amount of time, though it can also take place over a longer period of time. These binge eating episodes are often distressing and compulsive.

The signs include:

  1. A feeling of no control when it comes to eating.
  2. Eating faster than usual.
  3. Eating compulsively, whether the food is enjoyable or not.
  4. Unpredictable eating structures.
  5. Eating to the point of feeling uncomfortable.
  6. Feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing.
  7. Eating in private.
  8. Low self-esteem.
  9. Displaying symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Anorexia nervosa.

This condition is often described as low body weight – though that’s not always the case – and involves a distorted body image and anxiety around weight gain. The result is usually food deprivation and may also involve increased exercise for some.

The signs include:

  • Obsession with body weight and appearance.
  • Fear of weight gain.
  • Black and white thinking patterns.
  • Mood swings.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Stress around eating times.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Distorted body image.
  • Exercising compulsively.
  • Repetitive dieting.
  • Changes in clothing.

Bulimia nervosa.

Bulimia involves binge-eating episodes which are then followed by vomiting, which is self-induced, along with fasting, excessive exercising or abuse of laxatives or other drugs.

The signs include:

  • Difficulty or reluctance to develop social relationships.
  • Shame, guilt and self-disgust.
  • Dishonesty about food and food habits.
  • Self-harm and suicidal feelings or attempts.
  • Mood swings and personality changes.
  • Avoiding food or food-related activities.
  • Frequently going to the bathroom after meals.
  • Anxiety and depression.

These conditions may be exacerbated by the relationship we are taught to have with food when we’re children. Many of us are guilty of passing down unhealthy behaviours – without even realising. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture, along with intergenerational teachings, and this ends up influencing children, over and over again. Find out how and what we can do about it.

The effects of how we use food to regulate emotions.

So many intense moments in life are marked with food; weddings, birthdays, breakups and promotions. From the cake you bake for your kid’s high school graduation to the hot cocoa you made to offer comfort after a hard day, it’s plain to see we use food to manage, share and intensify our emotions.

While there’s nothing wrong with the loving gesture of baking cookies for someone you love, there can be some life-long consequences to associating the management of emotions with food.

Comfort: Associating negative emotions with food is a one-way ticket to dysregulated eating behaviours, and when they start in childhood, it’s even harder to change these habits. Many people with eating disorders like binge-eating recall childhood memories as the time when they first started using food as a coping mechanism – particularly high-sugar meals.

Celebrations: Loading up on sugary foods during positive times can also lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, as it reinforces emotional eating – even if it is in response to happiness instead of stress and sadness.

What to do instead.

Instead of offering food as comfort, use the experience to open a discussion and get to the bottom of your child’s fears. If talking is off the table, some physical activities can also offer reprieve, especially in nature – there’s a reason nature-based therapy is on the rise. Here are a few activities you can try:

  1. Cycling around the nearest trail.
  2. Simply going out for a walk in your local area.
  3. Heading to a bushland reserve to get some fresh air.
  4. Play a family game of backyard cricket.
  5. Volunteer at an animal shelter or sanctuary, spending time with animals has been shown to release oxytocin – the “feel-good” hormone.

If you notice your child is struggling with disordered eating, a therapist can offer significant insight and coping techniques. It may also be beneficial for kids to understand why they’re struggling in order to better manage it – along with addressing any underlying mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

When congratulating your kid for good grades on their exams, a hard-earned graduation or a successful sports game, celebrate with some one-on-one time or family activities. This could involve playing board games, watching a movie or something more adventurous like going bushwalking, exploring your nearest national park or heading to the surf to catch some waves. Pick an activity that’s enjoyable for everyone, without the sugar crash – and in some cases, with the added benefit of getting some sunlight and endorphin-raising physical exercise.

If you do use food in these contexts, opt for less sugar-heavy foods. A warming cup of tea is healthy and calming, camomile in particular is known for its anxiety-easing properties. Making low-sugar meals and snacks is another way to prevent the cycle of sugar addiction – and we’ve got just the thing for this – head on over to our websiteto check out our Kids Cookbook eBook for some healthy recipes that will satisfy any sweet tooth.


If you or someone you know needs help.

Please reach out to one of the following for urgent assistance:

Police & Ambulance: 000

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

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