How to identify if there is an eating behavior disorder in our environment

“It all started in confinement.” This is the phrase that has been heard most frequently during the last two years in the first interviews of young people who have requested help to treat their eating disorder.

Covid-19 has had a strong impact on the mental health of the population. Social distancing, isolation, quarantine, economic problems and general uncertainty are among the main variables that have contributed to a general increase in sadness, fear, frustration, feelings of helplessness, loneliness and anxiety.

These factors have created an ideal breeding ground for the development of eating behavior disorders (EDs). Its incidence increased notably in 2020 and, in addition, the symptoms have worsened in those who already suffered from the disorder. The number of consultations in units and centers specialized in the treatment of eating disorders has also increased notably.

Early detection is essential, and therefore it is important that mothers and fathers know how to identify if their daughter or son is suffering from this mental health problem.

What are the warning signs?

The onset of an eating disorder is often insidious. On many occasions, when the family and the environment identify it, they are already facing an established problem. In any case, there are a series of signs that warn of the presence of an eating disorder.

On a physical level, the most obvious symptom is undoubtedly weight loss of unknown origin. The family perceives that their daughter or son is getting thinner without there being a disease that can explain it. When weight loss is important, the body is in a state of malnutrition that can cause alterations such as hair loss, a feeling of constant cold or irregularities in menstruation.

However, we must not forget that not all TCAs lead to significant weight loss. The patient’s weight may not change or may even increase. What is present in patients is fear and rejection of being overweight.

At the behavioral level, the family can identify certain abnormal behaviors, such as a growing interest in gastronomic topics, learning recipes for others that the affected person never consumes. It is also common to show a lot of interest in eating an extremely healthy diet and reject certain foods that you used to like. It is possible that he hides food that he later consumes, or that he gets up from the table and locks himself in the bathroom after each meal and we hear him vomit. Likewise, there is a high interest in following accounts related to diets, healthy eating and weight control on social networks.

After meals, those affected may feel very guilty about the food consumed and show an urge to be physically active to make up for it.

On an emotional level, the person suffering from an eating disorder is sad, irritable and has very low self-esteem. Families perceive frequent mood swings and the feeling that the affected person is always angry.

Those affected also present a distorted image of their bodies, so that they perceive it as larger than they really are, along with intense emotional discomfort for this reason. This distorted perception can be focused on certain areas such as the abdomen, belly or legs.

Body dissatisfaction leads those affected to make every effort to try to reach the standards that have been set, both in studies and with their body or in their personal relationships. For this reason, they increase the hours they dedicate to studying, always trying to obtain the best results.

Those affected by eating behavior disorder may perceive a distorted image of their bodies.
Shutterstock / CalypsoArt

What should parents do?

To begin with, it is normal for parents to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what they can do. Sometimes, to avoid having more arguments, they choose to think that if they do nothing, the problem will gradually disappear. But it is a mistake. Studies tell us that going with the ostrich strategy can make things even more complicated.

So how to deal with the problem when it is detected at home? Parents should encourage dialogue, show interest in the affected person and in what may be happening to them, fostering a climate of trust.

You should also know that the time of the meal is not the ideal time to start the conversation. In this situation there are usually tensions and anger. It is better to postpone the conversation to a time when family members can talk without these tensions.

When the opportunity to speak comes, it’s important not to beat around the bush. Parents need to be prepared to listen actively and pay full attention to what their children are saying without getting into a debate with them, no matter how irrational what comes out of their mouths may seem. However, they can propose the need for them to receive specialized treatment by offering them the different resources available.

In that case, the first step will be to go to the primary care doctor to refer the patient to the mental health unit. There are also public resources to rely on that offer much more extensive information. Among them the Association for the Defense of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Care, the Spanish Association for the Study of Eating Disorders and the Spanish Federation of Associations for Helping and Fighting Anorexia and Bulimia.

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