Can parents detect an eating disorder? (5 symptoms of eating disorders)

In this blog post, we shall answer the question “can parents detect an eating disorder?” and look at what eating disorders are, their common signs and symptoms and risk factors. We will also look at some signs of eating disorders that can be unnoticeable and finally look at the treatment options for eating disorders.

Can parents detect eating disorders?

Yes, it is possible for parents to detect the signs and symptoms of eating disorders for their children before they become full-blown. Although this can be difficult to detect at first, we will provide you with a guide on which symptoms to look out for in your child and the measures you can take to help your child with an eating disorder.

Before we look at those symptoms, it is important we educate ourselves about what eating disorders are and their risk factors.

What are eating disorders? 

Eating disorders are mental illnesses characterized by abnormal eating habits, and complex and damaging relationships between food, exercise and body image that impairs physical and mental health.

Eating disorders are also known to cause death. In fact, about one person dies every hour as a direct result of an eating disorder. (Eating Disorders Coalition, 2016)

Types of eating disorders

What are the types of eating disorders that parents can detect? According to the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders fifth edition (DSM-5), there are six types of eating disorders. Obesity is no longer included as an eating disorder since it results from long-term excess energy intake relative to energy expenditure. 

A range of genetics, physiological, behavioural, and environmental factors that vary across individuals contribute to the development of obesity; thus, obesity is not a mental disorder. (Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders fifth edition 2013).

The six eating disorders are;


Pica is a feeding and eating disorder characterized by eating non-nutritive non-food substances such as ice, clay, soil, paper and stones. Can be caused by nutrition deficiencies, pregnancy, stress and cultural factors.


It is an eating disorder characterized by spitting up digested or partially digested food from the stomach, re-chewing the food and either re-swallowing or spitting it out. It tends to occur within 30 minutes of every meal. The causes of rumination remain unknown.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.

Formally referred to as selective eating disorder, is an eating disorder characterized by intense restriction or selection of food consumed. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with this eating disorder are not interested in their body image, shape or size.

Anorexia nervosa

Is a severe eating disorder characterized by abnormal body weight, distorted body image, and unwarranted fear of gaining weight. In order to prevent weight gain, anorexic people try to control their body weight by vomiting food, using laxatives, diet aids, and excessive exercise.

Common symptoms include extreme low body weight, dizziness, insomnia, fatigue, dry skin, hair that easily falls off, preoccupation with food, skipping meals, refusing to eat, denying hunger, complaints of being overweight, measuring weight often and lying about the quantity of food taken.

Causes include; biological factors such as genes, psychological factors such as temperaments and environmental factors such as societal demands.


Usually begins during the teenage and early adulthood years. It is more common in women than in men.

Anorexia is the most deadly mental illness. One study found that people with anorexia are 56 times more likely to commit suicide than people without an eating disorder. (Eating Disorders Coalition, 2016).

Bulimia nervosa

Is a mental disorder characterized by binge eating (consuming large quantities of food over a short period of time) followed by calorie-reducing strategies such as purging (induced vomiting), fasting and excessive exercise. 

Bulimia is a severe, life-threatening eating disorder. Symptoms include; binge eating, vomiting, self-harm, fatigue, dehydration, avoiding food, irregular and absence of menstruation, constipation, heartburn and guilt.

Causes include genetic factors, psychological factors such as personality, dieting and societal pressure.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating is an eating disorder characterized by consuming large amounts of food over a short period of time, and feelings of being unable to stop eating even when full. It is the most common eating disorder with a prevalence of  5.5%.

Symptoms include; eating large amounts of food over a short period of time, eating even when not hungry, feeling that your eating behaviour is out of control, eating until you are uncomfortably full, eating in secret, eating alone and feelings of depression and guilt.

Unlike people with bulimia, binge eaters are not concerned with weight reduction through vomiting, using laxatives or excessive exercise and can thus suffer from other physical conditions such as obesity.

It is more common in women than in men and usually begins during early adulthood. Causes include dieting and psychological issues such as depression and low self-esteem.

Can parents detect an eating disorder? (5 symptoms of eating disorders)

Signs and symptoms of eating disorders

The signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:

  • Obsessing over weight, calories and dieting
  • Changes in mood
  • Uncomfortable around others and food
  • Stomach and throat issues
  • General weakness
  • Dental and skin issues

Treatment of eating disorders


Some antidepressants like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors help in reducing episodes of binging and vomiting. They are also effective in treating depression and anxiety which are common co-occurring disorders among people with eating disorders.


Cognitive behavioural therapy is a form of therapy which helps a person with eating disorders change their negative thinking patterns about their self-image to more positive ones. Therapy also helps them deal with the underlying causes and triggers of their eating disorders. Finally, therapists can help them develop positive coping mechanisms for their life stressors.

Support groups

These will not only help you feel like you are not alone in the journey of recovering from eating disorders but will also give you a platform for free association where you can openly discuss the struggles of the illness without being ashamed or feeling guilty. Support groups also help in encouraging each other and keep one accountable.

Nutritive counselling

This involves having sessions with a registered dietitian or counsellor on healthy eating habits to help you get back on track and avoid relapses.


We have looked at whether it is [possible for parents to not realize when their children are having eating disorders. We have also looked at what eating disorders are, their types and common symptoms. We have then looked at the symptoms of eating disorders that are unnoticeable.

Finally, we have looked at the treatment options for eating disorders. If you have any questions or comments, please let us know in the comment section below.

Healthy coping skills for eating disorders

  • Talk with friends and family. Do not isolate yourself!
  • Become involved in activities you enjoy doing. They will boost your self-esteem.
  • Make a list of positive affirmations, choose one and use it for the next 21 days. The affirmation will be a part of you.
  • Get an emotional support animal
  • Practice mindfulness, i.e. yoga
  • Make a gratitude list
  • Journal your feelings throughout the day
  • Choose a hobby or pick new skills
  • Grow your support system

Frequently asked questions: my teachers think I have an eating disorder

What qualifies you to have an eating disorder?

The characteristics of eating disorders include having a preoccupation with food and exercising which affects normal life routines, food-related anxiety, excessive eating or not eating at all, and drastic weight changes.

Can you be aware you have an eating disorder?

Some signs you can look out for to determine if you have an eating disorder include spending a lot of time worrying about how you look and eat, feeling guilty about what and how you eat and feeling guilty, ashamed or sorry for yourself for your eating patterns and body weight.

What are three warning signs of anorexia?

  • You complain a lot about being fat
  • You engage in extreme dieting and exercise routines
  • You constantly worry about food, dieting, calories and your weight
  • You pretend to be full when you are hungry


Weinstein L. (July 30, 2020). Parent Cheat Sheet for Eating Disorders: What To Do (and Not To Do). Retrieved from

Bilyk K. (February 2, 2016). 5 Subtle Signs Of An Eating Disorder Most Parents Fail To Notice. Retrieved from

Healthline, 6 Common Types of Eating Disorders (and Their Symptoms). Retrieved from