What Parents Need to Know about Eating Disorders in Teenage Boys

What Parents Need to Know about Eating Disorders in Teenage Boys

While once thought to be solely female illnesses, eating disorders are known to afflict people of all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The prevalence of eating disorders in teenage boys is a growing trend. We sat down with Le Bonheur Children’s General Pediatrician Dr. Michelle Bowden to discuss what parents need to know about eating disorders in teenage boys.

Do teenage boys have eating disorders?

Yes, teenage boys do suffer from the same eating disorders as girls. That includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Many times restrictive eating disorders in boys go undetected due to the cultural acceptance of men losing large amounts of weight for the sports they play and their extreme focus on building lean muscle rather than weight loss.

What is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder?

A common eating disorder for boys is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). ARFID is similar to anorexia nervosa but it not fueled by a body image component.  Many times this is a kid who doesn’t want to lose weight and often wants to gain weight. However, they get insufficient nutrition due to having very poor variety or quantity of food eaten. Concerns about food texture temperature, or content may contribute to disordered eating behaviors. Often, these are children described as “picky eaters” who get progressively more restrictive over time. They may have other diagnoses such as autism, OCD or anxiety disorder. 

Occasionally, ARFID arises very abruptly — this type of disorder is usually linked to a negative experience a boy has had with food such as a vomiting or choking episode that was particularly traumatic for him.

No matter the reason for ARFID, appropriate therapy and food exposures (often with the help of an occupational or speech therapist) are key to improving his nutrition. 

Signs parents need to watch out for

If you are unsure if your child has an eating disorder, have family meals. You will begin to notice how they eat, and the habits they are beginning to develop surrounding food. Be a good observer of their actions.

If you start to notice patterns that are concerning to you, it’s time to get someone else involved. The best place to start is with your son’s pediatrician. If your son has body image issues, it is probably a good idea to have them visit with a counselor. A dietitian with experience in eating disorders is also important in helping your child recover a healthy diet. The best approach is multi-disciplinary care by a medical provider, therapist and dietician.

How parents can help

As a parent, you are your son’s best example. Set an example of a healthy body image. When a child hears negative rhetoric surrounding body image, they will apply it to their bodies. Even when the rhetoric is not directed at them. Talk often about what our bodies do for us, and don’t engage in describing our bodies simply from the outside. All bodies are good.

Try not to ascribe moral value to foods. Don’t describe them as good and bad foods. As an adult you have context that kids do not have. When you describe food as bad, they may then apply that to themselves. For example, if you say that cake is a bad food, when they eat a slice of cake, they themselves think they are bad.

Le Bonheur’s Eating Disorder Clinic

Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital has a multi-disciplinary clinic to help adolescents with eating disorders. If there is a concern, they can help diagnose an eating disorder and decide what kind of treatment is needed. They can help connect your son to a therapist and dietician. They work with eating disorder clinics and programs locally and nationally.

Support group for parents

It is hard having an eating disorder, and it is also hard when your loved one has an eating disorder. Developed by parents and for parents, Le Bonheur has created a support group known as Comfort from Our Cupboard. This group was created for parents at all stages of the journey. Though this is not a therapy group, they do provide some education and resources to help parents understand and help their child. They meet the first and third Tuesday of every month through Zoom. Connect with the group on Facebook to get all of the details.

Want to learn more about General Pediatrics at Le Bonheur?

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