Eating disorders are mental health conditions characterised by persistent unhealthy eating behaviours. These behaviours may include eating too much or too little and often excessively focusing on weight, body shape and food.
The body’s ability to get appropriate nutrition can be significantly hampered causing serious harm to physical health.
A variety of physical, emotional and behavioural changes are seen in eating disorders often causing impairment of functioning in important areas of life.
Types of eating disorder
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID) are the four main types of eating disorders
- Young people with anorexia worry a lot about being fat (even if they are skinny). They have a distorted body image and an intense fear of being fat.
- They restrict their diet or even starve and lose a lot of weight. They may think about food or calories almost all the time.
- To lose weight, some people with anorexia use extreme methods such as excessive exercise, vomiting after eating or taking laxatives or diuretics (water pills).
- Significant and rapid weight loss can cause serious physical health problems, sometimes life-threatening
- Young people with bulimia are also usually preoccupied with and judge themselves on weight and body shape.
- They alternate between episodes of bingeing and purging. Episodes of bingeing involve overeating in a short period of time with a feeling of loss of control. Binges are usually followed by purging; unhealthy ways to make up for the overeating such as making themselves throw up, using laxatives or diuretics (water pills)
- People with bulimia may also restrict their diet when not bingeing
- People with bulimia may be thin, average weight, or overweight. People with bulimia often hide their eating and purging from others.
Both anorexia and bulimia are more common in girls, but do occur in boys. They can happen in young people of all backgrounds and cultures.
- Involves overeating with feeling of loss of control followed by feelings of guilt and shame but without the compensatory behaviours to lose weight that are seen in bulimia.
- People with binge eating disorders are normal weight or overweight.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
- ARFID is when someone avoids certain foods or limits how much they eat or does both to the point where they do not meet their minimum nutritional requirements.
- ARFID is not driven by beliefs about weight or body shape. Causes of ARFID are a lack of interest in food, sensory sensitivity or concerns about the consequences of eating e.g., a fear of choking.
Physical effects of eating disorders
- Feeling cold
- Problems with digestion, such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea
- Tiredness and difficulty with normal activities
- Heart racing, fainting or feeling faint
- Changes in hair and skin.
- Pains, tingling or numbness in arms and legs
- Loss of periods, not getting periods or other delayed signs of puberty
- Serious ill health effects such as infertility, thin bones and heart problems
Psychological/behavioural complications of eating disorders
- Low mood and Anxiety.
- Poor concentration, missing school.
- Lack of confidence, withdrawal from friends.
- Dependency or over-involvement with parents.
- Thoughts of self-harm
Eating disorder treatment for children and young people
Regular health checks are needed if an eating disorder is having an effect on your child's physical health.
- Family based treatment (FBT) for anorexia and bulimia: FBT is an outpatient treatment program that actively engages parents in the process of restoring their child to a healthy weight at home. FBT treats anorexia first and foremost as a medical illness and uses food as a therapeutic agent.
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for eating disorders (CBT-ED): Individual eating disorder focused cognitive behaviour therapy aims to help people with eating disorders develop new ways to think about food, body image and self-esteem.
- Medication: There is limited role for psychiatric medication, primarily for treatment of co-morbid anxiety or depression.
When to seek professional help
Anorexia and bulimia are very serious illnesses which can be life-threatening if left untreated. Early treatment is key as they are harder to treat over time. Most young people get better with treatment.
Parents may find it difficult to tell the difference between ordinary dieting in young people and an eating disorder.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight or how they are eating, make an appointment to consult with one of our expert child and adolescent psychiatrists.
If an eating disorder is causing physical ill health, seek urgent help from a paediatrician or a hospital emergency department as a first step.
For further information about our Children and Adolescent Services call today on: (+971) 4 385 4493 (Dubai) / (+971) 2 651 8111 (Abu Dhabi) or submit an enquiry form in confidence. We will provide you with details on all our treatments and offer help on how to support your child's or teenager's mental health and wellbeing.