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Having 'the talk' - "Don't do disordered eating"

Updated: Sep 25, 2023


Even though most disordered eating behaviors show up around ages 12-15, the exposure to the triggers, dangers, and perceptions can occur as early as they start elementary school. So in addition to talking to your kids about "don't do drugs" you will want to open the conversation about "don't do disordered eating" earlier than you may think. Dieting behaviors and mentalities are not safe or appropriate especially for children, yet kids often start dieting in elementary school. Ignoring the issue will not protect your child from the risks associated with a damaged relationship with food. Body image issues, altered eating patterns, and even dieting can start early on in elementary school ages, so tailor your conversation to be age appropriate for your child. More than anything, make sure your child feels comfortable asking you about any and all of these topics whether they be body shaming comments, diet behaviors, anxiety around eating, etc. Natural times to have these conversations may happen at a family dinner, or while cooking or planning meals. Involve your kids in those food-centered activities and keep the conversation as low-pressured as possible.


Possible questions for younger kids:

  • What is mealtime like at school?

  • Do you look forward to eating at school? Why or why not?

  • Do you notice any negative comments that make people feel bad about their bodies or they way they eat?

  • Do you feel worried about eating? When and why?

  • Do you hear kids talk about dieting? How does that make you feel?

For older kids:

  • What do you know about disordered eating?

  • Do you notice any peers or friends with disordered eating behaviors?

  • Have you considered or experimented with any of those behaviors?

  • What do you think might trigger that behavior?

  • If you think of food as a relationship, how is your relationship doing?

Don't stress too much about how to start the conversation, just start it with your child and let them know that they are in a safe, compassionate space to ask any questions and share any concerns.


To educate yourself as a parent on the topic, here is some basic disordered eating information:


Disordered Eating Behavior Definitions & Symptoms


Restricting – refusing to eat certain foods, meals, or quantities.


Binging – eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, continuing past fullness while feeling out of control – often done in private and accompanied by shameful feelings.


Purging - compensating for or expelling food intake to change weight or body shape or size and often to “make up for” consuming calories such as by vomiting, laxatives, or exercise.


Anorexia Nervosa – self starvation and weight loss, resulting in low body weight.

1. Restricting type – very low caloric intake with extreme dieting or fasting behaviors or excessive exercising.

2. Binge-purge type – restricting with the addition of binging and purging.


Symptoms of Anorexia:

· Menstrual periods stop

· Dizziness or fainting from dehydration

· Brittle hair/nails

· Cold intolerance

· Muscle weakness and wasting

· Heartburn and reflux (in those who vomit)

· Severe constipation, bloating, and fullness after meals

· Stress fractures from compulsive exercise as well as bone loss resulting in osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)

· Depression, irritability, anxiety, trouble with concentration, and fatigue


Bulimia Nervosa - typically alternate dieting or eating only low calorie “safe foods” with binging on “forbidden” high calorie foods. Binges occur at least weekly and are typically followed by purging behaviors such as fasting, vomiting, laxatives or compulsive exercise to prevent weight gain.


Symptoms of Bulimia:

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom following meals

  • Large amounts of food disappearing or unexplained food wrappers and containers

  • Chronic sore throat

  • Swelling of the salivary glands in the cheeks

  • Dental decay resulting from erosion of tooth enamel by stomach acid

  • Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux

  • Laxative or diet pill misuse

  • Recurrent unexplained diarrhea

  • Misuse of diuretics (water pills)

  • Feeling dizzy or fainting from dehydration as a result of purging


Binge Eating Disorder - episodes of binge eating in which they consume large quantities of food in a brief period, experience a sense of loss of control over their eating followed by negative and often shameful feelings occurring at least once a week and the presences of at least 3 of the following behaviors:

  • Eating more rapidly than normal.

  • Eating way past comfortable fullness.

  • Eating large amounts of food when not hungry.

  • Eating alone because of embarrassment by how much one is eating.

  • Feeling disgust, shame depression, or extreme guilt after a binge.


ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) – extreme picky eating beyond behavioral norms or disrupted eating that results in nutrient deficiencies where the number of foods eaten is very limited or shrinking.

Symptoms and/or conditions required for diagnosis:

  • Low appetite and lack of interest in food or eating.

  • Extreme food avoidance based on sensory characteristics of foods (texture, appearance, color, smell).

  • Anxiety about physical consequences of eating, such as fear of choking, nausea, vomiting, constipation, an allergic reaction, etc. The disorder may develop following a significant negative event such as a choking or food poisoning episode that leads to restrictive intake of previously eaten foods.

  • Significant weight loss (or failure to achieve expected weight gain in children).

  • Significant nutritional deficiency.

  • The need for nutritional supplements or feeding tube to maintain adequate nutrition intake.

  • Interference with typical social eating events (such as inability to eat with others).


This is not an exhaustive list of eating disorders or diagnostic criteria. For more detailed information:




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