Is It a Diet or Is It an Eating Disorder? What Parents Need to Know

Eating disorders are a complex illness resulting from a variety of emotional and environmental factors and manifest in a variety of different ways. Often, they can go undetected, especially when unhealthy eating habits can look like a fad diet. Parents of teens may have a hard time recognizing when abnormal eating habits are leading to the detriment of their child’s health. Following are some tips that can help you spot the difference between symptoms of eating healthily while dieting and symptoms of an eating disorder.

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photo: bigstock

Your child on a diet:

  • Has a clear weight goal. Ask your child what their weight goal is and determine if it seems like a reasonable, healthy weight for their body.
  • Doesn’t completely cut out any food group. It’s normal to limit unhealthy or fatty foods, but part of eating healthily is eating a variety of nutrients and foods. If your child won’t touch a certain food at all, like bread or proteins, there may be a problem.
  • Limits portions, especially of unhealthy or fatty foods, but still enjoys eating. Most individuals on diets feel guilty after eating too much or too unhealthy, but not afraid. If your child seems afraid or anxious around food, especially eating in public, it may be a sign of a bigger problem.
  • Exercises because it helps them achieve their goals and feels good, not excessively or to punish themselves.

Your child with an eating disorder:

  • Doesn’t have a clear weight goal. Whatever the scale says, it won’t be low enough. They will always want to lose more and more weight.
  • Eats only certain types of foods. They seem disgusted or afraid of foods they used to like, which may be high in fat or sugar. They may also have strange eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or rearranging it on the plate. They may also combine strange foods together, which they binge on in secret.
  • Limits portions to extreme degree of low calorie intake and skips meals. Individuals with eating disorders will often make excuses not to eat. Either they are not hungry, just ate with a friend, or are not feeling well.
  • Has an unhealthy body image. They complain about being fat regardless of how thin they are or how much weight they’ve lost. They seem repulsed by certain body parts or their body in general.
  • Suffers from depression and engages in self harm. Some individuals also abuse drugs, alcohol, or laxatives.

If your child shows signs of an eating disorder, getting help is essential. Eating disorders can lead to heart and kidney problems or even death, and often coincide with other emotional illnesses, which can be just as harmful mentally as they are physically. Treatment is available to help with the individual’s emotional, social, and body image problems that cause eating disorders. is a good place to get started in finding adequate treatment. There is hope in recovery. Your child can overcome his or her eating disorder.

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