Most people have heard about eating disorders, but what about their close cousin, disordered eating? It’s important to learn about disordered eating, because it often precedes an eating disorder. And since early treatment for an eating disorder results in much better outcomes, catching disordered eating before it turns into an eating disorder is important. Here are some key facts about disordered eating:
- Many eating disorders begin as disordered eating
- Disordered eating is so common that it’s considered normal
- 75% of women report they have disordered eating
- Stopping disordered eating can prevent many eating disorders
- Disordered eating is often unintentionally passed from parents to children
The number of eating disorders recorded annually worldwide has doubled in the past 18 years. The global rate of eating disorder prevalence doubled from 3.5% of the population to 7.8% between 2000 and 2018. These alarming statistics tell us that something is seriously off with the way we approach food and eating.
Our kids are at risk. Even though disordered eating is common, it’s not benign. One study found that teens who diet or restrict food are at least five times more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Parents can help their kids avoid body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders by addressing these topics early and often. Talk to your child about disordered eating. Don’t worry about making mistakes – worry about leaving the gigantic elephant in the room!
What is disordered eating?
Disordered eating is a combination of behaviors that are so common they are often believed to be “normal.” They include:
- Dieting, or any form of food restriction with the goal of weight loss
- Anxiety about food and meals
- Fear of specific foods
- Skipping meals
- Ignoring/distracting from hunger
- Rigidity surrounding food and exercise behaviors
- Feeling guilt and shame about eating and food choices
- Preoccupation with food and body weight
- Using food restriction, fasting, purging, and exercise as a way to compensate for eating behavior
- The belief that some foods are “good” and others are “bad”
According to a recent survey, 75% of women report disordered eating behaviors or symptoms. That means that three out of four women have an unhealthy relationship with food or their bodies.
Since women spend the most time parenting children (Pew Research), our disordered relationship with food is a challenge. Our beliefs about food and our bodies, and our disordered eating, can negatively impact our kids’ body image and food behaviors. But it’s never too late for parents to heal themselves and help their kids feel better.
What are the symptoms of disordered eating?
Sadly, disordered eating symptoms can be hard to catch. This is because they are incredibly normal in our diet-culture society. It seems like everyone is restricting food. Some cut out sugar. Other cut out meat. Most people say they are restricting for “health.” But there is no evidence that cutting out food or losing weight increases our health. That’s right: losing weight does not improve health.
If you worry that your child may have developed disordered eating, consider these common symptoms:
- Frequent weighing
- Following social media accounts that provide food and diet advice, diet products (e.g. “skinny” teas, meal replacement shakes, supplements, “detox” products, etc.)
- Maintaining precise food and exercise logs
- Attempting to distract from hunger by “filling up” on low calorie foods or exercising
- Cutting out entire macronutrient groups (i.e. carbs, fats, proteins)
- Becoming a vegetarian or vegan
- Eating only “clean” foods or “superfoods” and cutting out foods like sugar, carbs, and fats
- Not eating food even when they want/crave the food because the food is considered “bad” or “unhealthy”
- Having strong opinions about food, eating, and weight, to the point of getting into arguments about them
- Refusing to eat a favorite dish because it’s “not allowed” in their eating program
Common excuses for disordered eating
Your child likely has a very good reason for their disordered eating behavior. Some common excuses include:
Everyone’s doing it: every parent knows this excuse all too well. But when it comes to disordered eating, it’s often very true. But just because all of their friends skip breakfast and avoid sugar doesn’t mean your child should follow suit. In fact, given that we live in a society of near-constant diet trends, if “everyone’s doing it” your child should probably not do it!
It’s healthier: you can’t walk out the door without someone telling you that celery juice is “healthier” or not eating meat changed their life, or eating only meat and no carbs changed their life. Most of the time people say they feel “better than ever” and stronger, more alert, and healthier. But none of the diet trends have been proven by science. And many of them have been soundly debunked as ridiculous marketing designed to sell us products. A healthy diet is not complicated – it includes a variety of food eaten without shame or fear.
I need to lose weight for health reasons: intentional weight loss (i.e. dieting) has been soundly disproved. Between 90-95% of everyone who loses weight intentionally gains it back. A large percentage gains back even more and permanently damages their metabolism. This is true regardless of the purpose of weight loss. In other words, saying that you want to lose weight “for health reasons” doesn’t change the fact that the most common outcome of weight loss is weight gain and poor health.
Parents should listen to their kids when they use these excuses and then share the scientific data about the truth. Don’t think you can do this just once. Your child has likely heard the excuses for disordered eating hundreds, if not thousands of times already in their lifetime. You need to be persistent in order to counter-balance the endless stream of disordered eating excuses.
How can I talk to my child about disordered eating?
Talking to your child about disordered eating is critical to helping them heal their relationship with their body and food. You may feel as if you don’t have the authority to speak to your child about these topics. It’s very possible that you have your own disordered behaviors, and you worry about making things worse.
These fears are normal, but please know that you can’t abdicate food and body issues to professionals. You can’t assign this problem to someone else and hope for the best.
As parents, we are the most important people in our kids’ lives when it comes to food and body. We don’t have to do this perfectly. We just have to do it regularly and with the knowledge that we’re going to make mistakes, but we’re doing our best.
- Take time to reflect on your own relationship with food and your body
- Consider how your beliefs about food and your body may impact your child
- Choose a time when you are both calm and relaxed – not while eating, just after eating, or just before eating
- Tell your child that you want to talk about food and eating
- Let them know that you understand you have sent mixed messages in the past, and you are working on your own relationship with food and eating
- Name the specific behaviors you are observing in a non-judgmental, compassionate way
- Ask them how they feel about their food and eating behavior
- Find out if they are concerned about their body weight and appearance
- Ask them if they would like to talk to a therapist or nutritionist
- If they shut down or close off to you, don’t panic. Just tell them that you’ll keep bringing this up, since it’s important
- Keep the conversation open and talk about food and body image frequently
How to heal your own disordered eating
It’s possible that before you can help your child, you need to get some help for your own disordered eating. Remember – 75% of women report disordered eating behaviors. You are not alone, and this is not a shameful situation. This is merely a side effect of living in our culture that demonizes fat and makes us afraid of food.
There are several excellent books that can help you recover from disordered eating. A great, fun read is The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy, by Caroline Dooner. In addition to her book, she has a website with links to her blog and podcast, and she is active on Instagram.
It’s very common for parents to realize that they struggle with their own food and body issues while trying to raise healthy kids. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help so that you can be stronger and more aware. We have a Professional Directory with lots of registered dietitians who work with parents to help them heal their own relationship with food and figure out how to feed their kids without fear. Most of them will work with you via phone, so don’t worry if you can’t find someone nearby.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.
 Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000–2018 period: a systematic literature review, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Galmiche et al, 2019
 Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years, BMJ, GC Patton et al, 1999
 Survey finds disordered eating behaviors among three out of four American women, SELF Magazine in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008
 Does dieting make you fat? A twin study, International Journal of Obesity, Pietlainen et al, 2012
 Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition, Obesity, Fothergill et al, 2016