In Young Boys Eating Disorders May Look Like Picky Eating

Boys Get Eating Disorders Too

When teen-age girls get eating disorders, they often declare themselves to be "fat." But when young boys develop eating disorders, they do not usually use words.

"They generally become extremely picky eaters and the list of foods they will eat grows smaller and smaller," says Ellen Rome, MD, a Cleveland Clinic expert in adolescent medicine. "They avoid many foods and will even gag on some things."

Warning signs

One strong warning sign is when a child suddenly cuts entire food groups out of his diet, such as declaring himself to be a vegetarian. When this starts to happen, parents must be alert to additional symptoms such as failure to gain weight or grow, she says.

"With girls, the cessation of menstrual periods is often a red flag. That is obviously missing in boys, but older boys may notice a decreased libido,” Dr. Rome says.

Potential triggers

Many things can trigger eating disorders in young boys. The most common is being teased about their weight, especially at home. "This leads to low self-esteem, which puts them at even greater risk for obesity and eating disorders," Dr. Rome says.

Stresses such as parental divorce, sexual abuse or a general fear of growing up can contribute to an eating disorder as well.

Ensuring good nutrition

If young boys want to become vegetarian, "take them to a registered dietitian so they can learn to be a healthy vegetarian," says Dr. Rome. "They need to know how much tofu it will take to make up the protein they formerly got in meat."

She also suggests that children with a sudden diet change be checked for physical problems that may be causing pain when they eat, such as irritable bowel disease. "Also, remember that reducing food intake can cause painful gastric slowdowns and constipation, further reducing a child’s desire to eat," she says.

Treatment usually requires a team approach involving a dietitian, a pediatrician or adolescent medicine expert and a therapist to coach parents on forging new eating patterns. "Look for professionals who are experienced in disordered eating in children," notes Dr. Rome.

Underlying problems

She adds that "in kids under 12, eating disorders may just be the tip of the iceberg. Younger boys and girls are more likely than older patients with eating disorders to have an underlying anxiety disorder, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder."

Concerned parents should get help from a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist, because these disorders respond very well to treatment once they are recognized.