Anyone with a teenager knows that kids can seem like “bottomless pits” when it comes to food. But when is a child’s appetite not only unhealthy, but a cry for help?
Binge Eating Disorder, or BED, usually affects children between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, with girls outnumbering boys two to one. Children with BED eat large quantities of food whether or not they are hungry; they report feeling “zoned out” and out of control when eating. This leads to strong feelings of shame and distress, which then prompts the child to comfort him/herself with more food. Binge eating differs from bulimia in that the child is not compelled to “purge” after a binge episode, either through vomiting, laxatives, or compulsive exercise. Therefore, a child with BED is more likely to be overweight.
Studies have found physical, social, and psychological causes that lead to binge eating. The hypothalamus, a gland that secretes hormones that tell you when you’re full, may give off faulty signals. Compulsive eaters also have low levels of serotonin, the body’s “feel-good” chemical (Melinda Smith, MA; Robert Segal, MA; Jeanne Segal, PhD). Sometimes a child who is rigidly denied certain foods at home will binge on them at a friend’s house, or in secret. Most commonly, kids who binge are suffering from stress, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, or boredom.
Is your child suddenly eating an alarming amount of food because of a growth spurt, or in response to a problem he/she can’t soothe any other way? What should you look for?
• anxious behaviors such as nail-biting, sleep disturbances, aggression
• hidden stashes of food or empty wrappers
• preoccupation with food, i.e. next meal or snack
• negative comments about him/herself
• social isolation; spending more time alone in his/her room
• disengagement from normal activities of interest
• eating quickly; returning for more food within an hour of a meal
• a pattern of any of these behaviors occurring at least once a week over a three month period
If you’re concerned about your child’s eating habits, here are some Do’s and Don’ts for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other adults in the child’s life, according to Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, chief pediatric officer of RealAge.
• allow mindless eating in front of the TV. Food should always be consumed at the table, without distractions (no texting, reading, etc.)
• tell children to “clean their plate.”
• use food as a reward.
• focus undue attention on food, body weight, or table manners.
• try to figure out what’s going on emotionally. Pressures at home? At school?
• manage your child’s stress. Find professional help if needed.
• teach kids to cook, so they learn to appreciate subtle flavors and quality ingredients.
• encourage physical activity to balance brain chemistry, alleviate boredom, and metabolize excess weight.
• provide three healthy, nutrient-dense meals and two snacks per day, but allow treats on occasion.
• be a good role model. Control portions, eat slowly, make healthful choices, and avoid the “don’ts” above.
• schedule doctor visits more frequently to build accountability and keep close tabs on any risk factors that may be present.
Above all, parents should feel empowered to address the issue head-on. Whether the cause is physical, social, or psychological, BED isn’t just a phase that children grow out of. “We remember to talk to our kids about drugs or bullying,” says Nancy Creighton, children’s outreach liaison at Westbrook Health Services. “But we don’t necessarily talk to them about good nutrition.”
- Judy Bennett is a board certified holistic health practitioner and a member of the International Association of Wellness Professionals and the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior.