Is Your Child Suffering from an Eating Disorder?


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“I’m fat,” my 11-year-old daughter said one day near the end of fifth grade, pouting. “When I bend over, you can see fat over my pants.”

A little background: My daughter is, and always has been, in the 25th percentile for weight. She eats like a bird, and a very finicky bird at that. So I did what any patient, sensitive parent would do and shrieked, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

It turns out my daughter was comparing her “muffin top” to another girl’s seemingly flab-free middle. Fortunately, I was able to reassure her she was just fine, and her concern was short-lived. She hasn’t said anything negative about her body since, but my antennae are always on the lookout.

Millions of families aren’t so lucky.

Thin is in

Adolescents are wired to focus on their looks. More and more, girls — and, to a surprising degree, boys — are unhappy with what they see in the mirror. They want to be thinner, stronger, prettier — to look like the “hot” girls and boys in their school and the pop stars, actors and models they admire. They use appearance as a measure of value. They often don’t take into account the personal trainers and stylists celebrities use or calorie restrictions models endure. (The average fashion model is in the fifth percentile for weight.)

What preteens and teens who obsess about their body don’t realize is that they’re a work in progress. “Teens and children need more information about how their body grows,” says Nancy L. Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders in Durham. “We don’t need to demonize body fat” in kids who are in the normal weight range, she says.

All too often, feeling bad about their body — especially their weight — leads kids to an unhealthy relationship with food and activity. But it’s not always easy to pin down the issue. Eating problems fall onto a continuum, with fad diets and exercise kicks on one end to full-blown psychiatric disorders like anorexia nervosa — the most widely known eating disorder involving distorted body image and severe calorie restriction — on the other.

Because less-severe problems don’t produce obvious symptoms or dramatic weight loss, many kids who seem fine spend years obsessing over their weight, body fat percentage or clothing size.

“I was the girl who sat next to you in class. I was the social secretary of my sorority, yet I had an eating disorder for 15 years,” says McCall Dempsey, the founder of Southern Smash, which raises eating-disorder awareness. The nonprofit organization based in Baton Rouge, La., stages “scale smashing” events at colleges throughout the Southeast, including one scheduled Oct. 28 at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dempsey eventually sought help at Carolina House, a residential treatment center for eating disorders in Durham. It took eight months for her to let go of her perfectionism and develop a healthier mindset regarding her weight.

Food as the enemy

For adolescents in the grip of an eating disorder, listening to their instincts is almost impossible. So is seeing themselves objectively. In addition to causing eating disorders, this tendency can manifest itself in a rare but serious disorder called body dysmorphic disorder, says Cynthia Bulik, director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in Chapel Hill. This disorder is a “preoccupation with one or more perceived deficits or flaws that are not observable to other people or appear slight to others,” she says. “This can be absolutely devastating.”

But eating disorders are far more prevalent. According the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder sometime in their lives. Up to 1 percent of adolescent girls have anorexia, and 1-2 percent suffer from bulimia, purging through vomiting or laxative use, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics report. Blame it on social media, the entertainment industry or fashion magazines, but the truth is even the youngest children are vulnerable to negative body images.

“Clinically, we are seeing this in younger and younger children, although we don’t have good epidemiological data to back up our observations,” Bulik says.

Data from other sources validates Bulik’s claim: 40-60 percent of girls ages 6-12 are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

When it comes to observing possibly unhealthy body-image behaviors in their children, Bulik says many parents often think it is just a phase. “But what’s happening is that it is becoming entrenched and becoming indelibly etched in their child’s self-esteem and body esteem,” she says. “It might become less overt, but in fact it might just have gone underground.”

And it’s not just girls who are prone to negative self-images. “Boys are not immune to eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder at all, and boys can be terribly cruel to each other if they don’t measure up physically,” Bulik says. “It can also be a stepping stone to taking steroids to try to change their body so they are never teased again.”

Both Bulik and Zucker stress the importance of making your child’s physician an important ally if you suspect a possible problem with body image or eating. Physicians can reassure tweens or teens that their weight is normal for their height (if that is indeed the case) and stress the importance of a balanced diet and moderate exercise. Some physicians might also list the potential dangers of dieting, restricting food groups or over-exercising.

Parents can set the stage for their children’s healthy regard for their body and weight, Zucker says. “They’re picking up on our modeling, so don’t talk about other folks in reference to their weight or appearance,” she notes. “It’s also important for everybody to have dinner together so you can see what they’re eating, or not eating.”

Suzanne M. Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three.

Eating disorders defined

The three most common eating disorders are:

Anorexia nervosa – A psychiatric disorder involving distorted body image and severe calorie restriction, which can lead to death by starvation or suicide. Symptoms include dangerously low body weight, denial of the situation and a deep fear of getting fat.

Bulimia nervosa – A psychiatric disorder involving purging (i.e., vomiting and laxative use) to restrict calories after eating or binging.

Binge eating disorder – The newest eating disorder to receive a diagnosis code, this one involves binge eating without compensatory behaviors (i.e., purging) and is more often associated with overweight rather than normal-weight individuals.

Eating disorders signs


Signs of a potential eating disorder in children:

-          Changes in body weight not associated with normal growth.

-          Comments about hating their bodies.

-          Not wanting to go out because of how they look.

-          Covering themselves up.

-          Not wanting to go swimming or to the beach.

-          Spending hours in front of the mirror.

-          Not wanting to eat with the family or noticeable changes in eating behavior, moodiness and increased comparisons to other kids’ bodies.

Recommended reading

‘I'm, Like, SO Fat!’ Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D.

Almost Anorexic: Is My (Or My Loved One’s) Relationship with Food a Problem? by Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., and Jenni Schaefer


Treatment resources in the Triangle

Carolina House

Duke Center for Eating Disorders

UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders

 

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October 2018

North Carolina's signature event features live music, carnival rides, delicious food, kids' entertainment and more. See website for hours and ticket prices.  

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
N.C. State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

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Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: $18

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Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Erwin Road
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Cost: $18

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Open Arts
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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
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Hux Family Farm
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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Cost: $12/person. Free for ages 3 and younger.

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Stewart Theatre, Talley Student Union
2610 Cates Avenue
Raleigh, NC  27695
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Cost: Online - $10 adult, $5 ages 6-16, free 5 and under, $25 family.

Where:
Coastal Credit Union Midtown Park @ North Hills
4011 Cardinal at North Hills St.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: Midtown Raleigh Alliance and Capital Bank
Telephone: 919-438-2210
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Cost: $25 for adults, $5 for kids, free for children 3 and under

Where:
Chickadee Farms
980 McLemore Rd
Clayton, NC  27520
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Telephone: 919-418-9628
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Cost: $6/child

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Cost: $19/resident, $24/nonresident

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101 Wilkinson Ave.
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Cost: $5.00 per child for Arboretum Family members, $7.00 per child for nonmembers

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JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Wilkerson Nature Preserve
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Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
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North Carolina Botanical Garden
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Learn why leaves turn color during the fall season. Enjoy a one-hour tour of native trees in the park.

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E. Carroll Joyner Park
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Celebrate with this annual tribute to the state vegetable.

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State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
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Learn why leaves turn color during the fall season. Enjoy a one-hour tour of native trees in the park.

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E. Carroll Joyner Park
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Park West Village
Village Market Place, corner of 54 and Cary Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Cost: Free

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Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Spreedly
733 Foster Street
Durham, NC  27701
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Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Arts Council Allenton Gallery
120 Morris St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Cost: $5 donation per car

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Duke Homestead
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
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Cost: Free

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Good Hope Farm
580 Morrisville Carpenter Rd.
Cary, NC  27519
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Cost: $5/person. Free for ages 3 and younger

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North Carolina Botanical Garden
100 Old Mason Farm Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27517
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Telephone: 919-249-8404
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Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Cost: $5-$15/person

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Telephone: 919-782-0552
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Cost: Train price varies; free festival

Where:
Raleigh Union Station
510 W. Martin St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: NC By Train
Telephone: 800-298-7246
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Cost: $20-$25 per class

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Triangle Math and Science Academy
312 Gregson Drive
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: PAGE of Wake County
Contact Name: Suzy Wang
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Live entertainment, a kids' zone, corn hole competition, food trucks, and arts and crafts vendors highlight this annual festival in Holly Springs.  

Cost: Free

Where:
Sugg Farm at Bass Lake Park
2401 Grigsby Ave.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Explore magnet programs in the Durham Public School system.

Cost: Free

Where:
Southern High School
800 Clayton Rd.
Durham, NC  27703
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Learn how bats fly, catch their food, where they live, and what they do all winter. Preregistration recommended. Program includes story, craft, and outdoor experience.

Cost: $3

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
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More information

Children's booksellers read their favorite picture books. All ages.

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Take the family for a grassroots outdoor music event

Cost: Free

Where:
River Park
106 E. Margaret Ln.
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Enjoy food trucks, a petting zoo, costume contests for adults and pets, trick or treating at downtown businesses, a hay ride, children’s arts and crafts, balloon artistry,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Cary
South Academy Street
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: The Heart of Cary Association
Telephone: 919-561-3340
Contact Name: Nanette Mattox
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Explore the historic heart of downtown Raleigh on a walking tour of Fayetteville Street. Tours highlight the people, places, architecture and political movements that have shaped...

Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Learn about local bats and the wonderful things they do for humans. Wrap up the session by making a night creature luminary to use in fall celebrations. Appropriate for ages 5 and older....

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
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Man's best friend is featured in a family-friendly event that includes dog shows, a canine costume contest, parade, photo booth and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Wear a costume and take part in the inaugural Trick or Trot 5K at Wendell Falls. Prizes will be awarded for the fastest runners in costume and awards for the best-dressed runner. Awards will...

Cost: $30/person

Where:
Wendell Falls
320 Vintage Point Lane
Wendell, NC  27591
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Don a costume and experience the magic of Marbles after dark with family-friendly Halloween activities. Purchase tickets online; this event sells out quickly.

Cost: $12-$18/person

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Explore historical concepts of spiritualism, awe and wonder from the 19th century at Duke Homestead in this no-scare event. Wander the property to see what wonders you can find. All ages....

Cost: $10 plus tax per person in advance, $15 plus tax at the door.

Where:
Duke Homestead
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
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Cost: $5-$15/person

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: International Focus
Telephone: 919-782-0552
Website »

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