In a society where waifs rule and magazines herald a different fad diet every week, some kids view eating disorders as a small price to pay for fitting in. They’re wrong. Anorexia kills more than 10% of its victims, and bulimia 1%. Eating disorders also lead to depression and place enormous stress on families. Concerned that your child may be at risk? Here’s what you need to know.


“People with anorexia starve themselves to dangerously thin levels, at least 15% below their appropriate weight,” says Edward J. Cumella, Ph.D, CEDS, Executive Director of Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders in Wickenburg, Arizona. “People with bulimia binge uncontrollably on large amounts of food – sometimes thousands of calories at a time – and then purge the calories out of their bodies through vomiting, starving, excessive exercise, laxatives, or other methods. They are of normal weight or overweight.” Some anorexics also purge, but they are still underweight.


Not surprisingly, eating disorders disproportionately affect females. Only 10% of people with eating disorders are male. According to Cumella, the typical age of onset is between 14 and 18 – prime time for peer pressure, hazing, and low self-worth. Other red flags? Your child seems obsessed with weight and dieting, binges or follows a cycle of dieting and then overeating, heads to the bathroom after meals, is secretive about her eating or exercise habits, uses laxatives, or seems to feel depressed and out of control.


If any of the above sounds familiar, don’t expect your child to admit the problem or appreciate your help. “Your child may feel extremely threatened by the thought of giving up the dysfunctional eating behavior,” warns Cumella. “Don’t believe your child’s claim that s/he does not need professional help.” Seek out a doctor specializing in eating disorders, and be ready to participate in family counseling if requested. “Be patient,” adds Cumella. “Treatment takes time; recovery may take months or years and involve relapses.”


The good news? When eating disorders are caught early, the prognosis is good, and while there’s no vaccine against them, there are steps you can take to protect your children. Model healthy, moderate eating for your children, and trust their hunger signals – don’t force them to eat “one more bite” or tell them to stop eating when they’re still hungry. Don’t critique people’s weight or talk about dieting. Be the reality check; point out that thin celebrities often lead sad lives, that most diets fail, and that people of all shapes and sizes tend to be healthiest and happiest when leading lives of balance and moderation. Most importantly, make it clear that you value your children for who they are, not for what they weigh.