It’s back-to-school season. For many children and teens, this is an exciting time of year mixed with some stress. For students who are predisposed to an eating disorder, back-to-school can become a trigger.
Causes of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are complex illnesses with many causes that researchers are only starting to understand. Genetics, environment, and stressful life experiences have been identified as risk factors. Here are some back-to-school triggers that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
The pressure to succeed at school and earn good grades may cause a great amount of stress. It can become too much to handle without effective coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, some adolescents turn to unhealthy behaviors to help them cope. This can include eating disorder behaviors like restricting food intake, bingeing on large amounts of food, exercising compulsively, cutting entire food groups out of their diet, or obsessively counting calories.
Peer Pressure and Comparison
Another potential trigger for eating disorders is comparing yourself to your peers and feeling “less than.” This could be a direct comparison of one’s body and weight, or it could be something else like grades, friends, or popularity. Either way, the individual may start trying to achieve an “ideal” appearance to compensate for the perceived inadequacy.
Sports and Athletic Activities
Sports are great for getting more physical activity and building a community of peers. However, they can also lead individuals to over-exercise and/or restrict food in an effort to boost athletic performance. Some activities especially encourage a low body weight, such as dancing and cross country running.
Additionally, athletes need to adjust their diet to help them perform their best. If students are not educated about proper nutrition, they may accidentally lose weight and develop nutritional deficiencies even while eating a normal diet. When this occurs in women and girls, it is known as female athlete triad syndrome.
While not specific to school, puberty is a potential trigger for an eating disorder. The social environment of school can amplify a child’s concerns over their changing appearance. They may compare themselves to their peers and try to change their bodies to “fit in.”
For example, an adolescent boy may look at some of his peers who have grown tall and muscular, and start to compulsively lift weights so he can achieve the same body type. A young girl may compare herself to other girls who appear thinner, and then restrict food to attain a similar appearance.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Children and Teens
Many children go through the middle and high school years without any significant health issues. But be aware that eating disorders often develop in adolescence. Here are some signs to watch out for.
- Skipping meals
- Eating very little at meals
- Counting and measuring things like calories, fat, protein, etc.
- Refusing to eat certain foods or food groups (i.e. carbs or fat)
- Going on a diet, especially fad diets
- Saying they don’t feel hungry
Bingeing and Purging Behaviors
- Eating a large amount of food in one sitting
- Never eating at home or in front of others
- Stealing or hoarding food
- Vomiting after eating
- Misusing laxatives
- Making trips to the bathroom after eating
- Exercising to “burn off” calories, or despite injury or illness
- Fasting or going on diets
- Obsessing over food, weight, and appearance
- Frequently commenting on their weight or saying they feel “fat”
- Feeling guilty, depressed, or disgusted with themselves after eating
- Displaying anxiety about food and eating
- Having fears about eating in public or in front of others
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Experiencing mood swings
Is Your Child Struggling?
Do you recognize some of these symptoms in your child? Find out if it could be an eating disorder by taking the Seeds of Hope eating disorder quiz:
If you would like to speak to a professional about your child’s symptoms, call our treatment specialists at (610) 644-6464.