Eating Disorders and Advice for Parents

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Eating disorders involve intense disturbances relating to eating behaviours, including counting calories in an obsessive way, being sick after meals, secretly bingeing on food, following a rigid diet, and so on. Furthermore, eating disorders are more complex than just unhealthy eating habits. At the crux of all eating disorders lie inaccurate self-critical attitudes of body image, food and weight. It’s these kinds of feelings and thoughts that exacerbate these damaging behaviours.

Guilty snacking on food

Those who suffer from an eating disorder use comfort food to deal with painful emotions

Those who suffer from an eating disorder use food as a way of dealing with painful or uncomfortable emotions. To some, purging food helps to deal with feelings of self-loathing and helplessness, bingeing on food helps with feelings related to loneliness, anger or sadness and limiting food intake helps to feel in control. As time goes on, someone with an eating disorder becomes unable to view things objectively and obsession related to weight and food begins to take over normal life.


Types of Eating Disorders

The three most common types of eating disorders are binge eating disorder, bulimia and anorexia:

Binge Eating Disorder: Someone with a binge eating disorder will instinctively overeat thousands of calories in a short space of time. The sufferer may feel shameful or guilty about this secret bingeing, but they are unable to control this behaviour or unable to resist eating even when they feel very full.

Bulimia: This involves a cycle of bingeing and purging. After binge eating, someone with bulimia will purge to get rid of the extra calories. Again, to avoid putting on weight, they will take laxatives, induce vomit, fast, or exercise.

Anorexia: Someone who is suffering with anorexia will starve themselves as they fear becoming fat. Even though they may be emaciated or severely underweight, they cannot see this. As well as avoiding food to control weight, anorexia sufferers also use diet pills, purging and exercise.


The Warning Signs

Many of us worry about the way we look, what we eat and our weight, and therefore it can be difficult to spot the difference between an eating disorder and just normal weight concerns. Additionally, someone who has an eating disorder will go to extreme lengths to hide it. That said, there are warning signs to look out for and as the disorder progresses it becomes easier to spot.


  • Avoidance of meals / food e.g. upset tummy, had a big meal already, not hungry.
  • Weighing portions and counting calories obsessively.
  • Banning foods such as fat and carbs and eating small portions of low calorie foods only.
  • Food rituals e.g. excessive chewing/cutting, rearranging food on the plate, eating food in a specific order.

Binge Eating Disorder

  • Hiding and hoarding food such as sweets and junk food which are high in calories.
  • Empty food wrappers and packages often found at the bottom of the dustbin.
  • Huge amounts of food going missing.


  • Discoloration of teeth.
  • Regular complaints of constipation, diarrhoea, upset stomach and sore throat.
  • Regular trips to bathroom or disappearing straight after eating.
  • Running water, bathing or showering to hide sound of purging.
  • Excessive use of perfume, breath mints or mouthwash to hide smell of vomit.

Appearance Changes 

  • Wearing multiple layers or baggy clothes to hide weight.
  • Fear of gaining weight or repeated comments related to being overweight or feeling fat.
  • Constant fluctuating weight, rapid weight gain or extreme weight loss.
  • Obsession with weight of body e.g. criticising body in front of mirror or constantly checking weight.


Seek Help

The most crucial thing that you can do for someone suffering with an eating disorder is to encourage them to get help. The longer an eating disorder is left untreated, the harder it is to overcome.


Treatment Options

Treatment involves both looking at the psychological and physical aspects of the issue. The aim is to treat nutritional and medical needs, teach helpful ways to deal with life and the challenges faced and encourage a healthy relationship with food. The best approach involves a team of nutritionists, mental health workers and medical doctors. Participation of family members also makes a huge difference to the success of treating an eating disorder.

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is a crucial aspect of treating an eating disorder. The aim of therapy is to identify the negative feelings and thoughts related to the eating disorder and to replace these with a healthier attitude. Additionally, a person will be taught how to cope with stress, relationship problems and difficult emotions in a productive way.

Nutritionists: A nutritionist or dietician can help with creating meal plans which are balanced and setting goals to hit and maintain a healthy weight. Nutritional counselling can also help with teaching aspects related to nutrition.

Medical Treatment: To begin with, any serious health issues need to be stabilised. If someone is resisting treatment, is depressed or suicidal, has medical complications, or is severely malnourished, then residential treatment or hospitalisation may be needed.


Family mealtimes - Coping with eating disorders at home

Whenever possible, try and eat as a family.

Coping with Eating Disorders at Home

At home, as a parent, there is a lot that you can do to help your child with their eating disorder recovery. 

  1. Positive Example: As a parent, you have a lot of influence and need to eat healthy, nutritional meals and avoid dieting. Be careful about how you talk about eating and your body. Refrain from making critical remarks about someone’s appearance and focus on the fact that it’s what’s on the inside that makes someone attractive.
  2. Fun Mealtimes: Whenever possible, try and eat as a family. Use meal times as a way to enjoy each other’s company and mealtimes are also a great opportunity to show your children that food it something to enjoy and not fear.
  3. Power Struggles: If you force your child to eat something you will just cause conflict and this may lead to lying and secrecy. Don’t think this means you can’t set limits, but don’t use food as a deterrent to monitor behaviour.
  4. Self Esteem: Promote self-esteem in every way possible e.g. social endeavours, athletic and intellectual. Make sure both girls and boys have access to the same opportunities. Positive self-esteem and a well-rounded personality is important when to comes to tackling eating disorders.
  5. Avoid Guilt: Many parents blame themselves for their child’s eating disorder but it is something that no parent can control. Once you realise this then you are in the best position to take action and get your child treated.


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