Eating Disorders during the Holidays: A Parent’s Guide

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For those struggling with eating disorders, the festive season can be especially challenging because of its emphasis on food. Most people revel in this chance to indulge in delicious seasonal treats, but it can be incredibly difficult for some.

Young adults and teenagers can struggle with eating disorders without their parents knowing. However, focusing on food and meals during the holidays can put them under strain, and they may act out or withdraw from families. For parents, this can be concerning, and it is vital to understand the symptoms of an eating disorder so that you can offer the support your child desperately needs.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are several types of eating disorders to be aware of as a parent. Some are clinically recognized, but others are not.– However, lack of formal recognition does not make an eating disorder less severe.

Anorexia Nervosa

People struggling with anorexia restrict their calories heavily and constantly monitor their weight. They often suffer from body dysmorphia, a warped perception about their appearance, which leads them to think that they are overweight even if they are severely underweight. Some people with anorexia struggle with obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as hoarding food or recipes.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

ARFID is an eating disorder in which a person refuses to eat certain foods. They may avoid food for many reasons, such as being disgusted by the texture or becoming ill after eating it. This can dramatically reduce calorie consumption in young adults, affecting their mental and physical growth and wellbeing.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is a well-known eating disorder characterized by a binge and purge cycle. During a binge, people will eat until they are painfully full, and many feel unable to control their eating. This is then followed by a purge, which may include forcing themselves to throw up, fasting, using laxatives, or over-exercising. Many people who have bulimia do not lose or gain weight, as they purge the food that they have eaten.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge Eating Disorder is thought to be one of the most common eating disorders in the United States.[1] People with BED have symptoms similar to bulimia, in which they eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time with a lack of control. They often feel a sense of shame about their binges but feel powerless to stop. However, they do not purge, which leads to sufferers becoming overweight or obese.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

OSFED refers to an eating disorder that may have symptoms similar to other eating disorders but does not fit closely enough to receive a formal diagnosis. However, they can still be debilitating and cause many health complications.

Orthorexia

One disorder that may fall under the OSFED category is orthorexia. This disorder bears some similarities to anorexia, with OSFED sufferers categorizing food as good or bad, focusing on eating exclusively healthy foods, and heavily restricting their caloric intake.

This can be incredibly unhealthy, as those with orthorexia may cut out essential food groups such as fats or carbohydrates and severely damage their health. They may also exercise obsessively, even when injured, to try and improve their health, which can lead to a decline in physical fitness and rapid weight loss.

Pica

Those with pica crave things that are not food. They often want to eat substances such as chalk, soap, dirt, soil, or paper. Pica can increase the risk of poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, and infections.

There is no definitive cause of pica, although many doctors theorize that it is primarily caused by nutrient deficiencies. Pregnant people, or people with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, may be more likely to develop pica.

Symptoms of an Eating Disorder

The symptoms of an eating disorder vary depending on what type of eating disorder a person has. During the holidays, young adults may try to hide their symptoms from their parents as much as possible to prevent them from worrying. However, there are some signs to watch out for:

  • Wanting to eat alone or miss meals regularly
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Using meal replacement shakes or bars instead of having food
  • “Forgetting” to eat
  • Becoming upset about their appearance
  • Talking about feeling guilty after meals
  • Over-exercising to “make up” for eating
  • Eating in secret
  • Extreme anxiety when eating in front of people

Young adults with bulimia may also make up excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals to purge. They can also develop scars on the backs of their hands due to making themselves vomit.

People with anorexia also struggle with feeling cold most of the time as they are not eating enough calories to warm themselves up. They may also grow fine, soft hair, called lanugo, across their bodies, which is the body’s way of trying to keep warm without food.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Young adults can develop eating disorders for a variety of reasons. Factors that may influence this can include:

  • Genetics – One study on twins found that if one twin developed an eating disorder, the other twin had a 50% chance of developing one as well.[2]
  • Media pressure – Ideas of thinness permeate Western culture, and in cultures without this unrealistic “beauty” standard, eating disorders are much rarer.[3]
  • Social factors – Bullying and abuse can lead young adults to develop an eating disorder.
  • Gender – Research has found that women are more likely to develop an eating disorder than men.[4] However, this does not mean that men do not struggle with eating disorders.

The Next Steps

As a parent, it can be incredibly concerning and upsetting to see your child exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder. However, there is hope, and there are several steps that you can take to help your child find the help that they need:

  • Trust your instincts – Your child may deny that they have an eating disorder, even when they are presented with the facts. If you can see that they have an unhealthy relationship with food, do not accept that they don’t have a problem.
  • Do your research – Learning more about the intricacies of eating disorders will help you to understand what your child is going through and allow you to empathize. Research will help you identify potential next steps, such as seeking therapy or locating a treatment center.
  • Start a conversation – Your child may feel incredibly isolated and alone when struggling with an eating disorder. Ask them if they are okay and would like to talk about anything happening in their life. Although they may not want to discuss their eating disorder, they will know that you are there to support them and help them through it.
  • Consider treatment – Eating disorders can be fatal, especially if left untreated for a long time. If your child is not receptive to your help or you feel overwhelmed, seek professional help to facilitate long-term recovery before problems worsen.

Conclusion

It is extremely concerning to see your child struggling with an eating disorder. You may feel powerless or worry that it is your fault. However, this is not the case, and there are many things that you can do to support your child and find them treatment. The holidays can be stressful for those with eating disorders, and symptoms may worsen due to the focus on food. However, by letting your child know that you support them and that you will work together to find help, you can make the season a little bit easier.

If you or anyone you know is struggling please do not suffer alone. Please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Smink, Frédérique R E et al. “Epidemiology of eating disorders: incidence, prevalence and mortality rates.” Current psychiatry reports vol. 14,4 (2012): 406-14. doi:10.1007/s11920-012-0282-y

[2] Culbert KM, Racine SE, Klump KL. Research Review: What we have learned about the causes of eating disorders – a synthesis of sociocultural, psychological, and biological research. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2015 Nov;56(11):1141-64. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12441. Epub 2015 Jun 19. PMID: 26095891.

[3] Keel PK, Klump KL. Are eating disorders culture-bound syndromes? Implications for conceptualizing their etiology. Psychol Bull. 2003 Sep;129(5):747-69. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.747. PMID: 12956542.

[4] Nagl M, Jacobi C, Paul M, Beesdo-Baum K, Höfler M, Lieb R, Wittchen HU. Prevalence, incidence, and natural course of anorexia and bulimia nervosa among adolescents and young adults. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 Aug;25(8):903-18. doi: 10.1007/s00787-015-0808-z. Epub 2016 Jan 11. PMID: 26754944.

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