National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

February 26 through March 4, 2018, was Eating Disorders Awareness Week and an opportunity to talk about the connection between bullying and eating disorders. Weight-based teasing and bullying have been identified as common experiences for youth, particularly for those who may be heavier. Children whose peers tease them about their weight are more likely to engage in disordered eating. Help raise awareness about weight-based bullying. Learn what signs to look for in a child or young person who may have an eating disorder and what can be done to help adolescents who are bullied and at risk of developing an eating disorder.

What is an eating disorder?

Girl being bullied by her peers

Eating disorders are complex mental disorders that cause a person to have excessive fear and anxiety about eating, body image, and weight gain that lead to unhealthy behaviors. 

Three of the most commonly diagnosed eating disorders include binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa.

  • Binge eating disorder: A person with binge eating disorder will eat too much and feel like they do not have control over how much they eat. What to look for: eating in secret, eating a lot of food quickly, and feelings of sadness or guilt about eating.
  • Bulimia nervosa: A person with bulimia will overeat and then throw up on purpose or do something else to make up for what they ate, such as not eating or exercising a lot, so that they do not gain weight from eating too much. What to look for: hidden food wrappers, vomit, always going to the bathroom after eating, over-exercising, and moodiness.
  • Anorexia nervosa: A person with anorexia often fears that they weigh too much, despite their weight being low. This fear drives them to try to lose weight or avoid weight gain by limiting the foods that they eat. What to look for: weight loss, talking about food and eating all the time, not eating, and withdrawing or other changes in mood.

Eating disorders can lead to serious health problems, like heart failure and death, without help from a trained health care team. Anyone can get an eating disorder at any age, but eating disorders are more common in females and most start during the teen years. Recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time, but it is possible to fully recover. People who were teased about their weight as teens sometimes worry about their weight and engage in disordered eating behaviors into adulthood.

How can I support a young person who is being bullied about their weight?

Supporting the young person who is being bullied is critical. Listen to the young person and let him or her know that it is not their fault and that they deserve to feel good about their body. Be aware that they may have a hard time talking about weight-based teasing, but knowing he or she has an adult who cares can make all the difference in preventing an eating disorder from further developing. Here are some more tips:

  • Encourage young people to eat healthy and be active. Get more ideas from the President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition.
  • Set a good example. Avoid teasing young people about their weight and talking negatively about other people’s bodies, including your own. Focus conversations on positive personality traits that emphasize the strengths and talents of young people.
  • Help young people find activities that they like and help them make friends with their peers.
  • Ask children and adolescents who show signs and symptoms of an eating disorder about how they feel, and create a safe space for them to talk about their emotions and social relationships.
  • Talk to your child’s physician or other health provider if you notice signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.
  • Join the conversation online during Eating Disorders Awareness Week and share resources on body image and eating disorders with your social media contacts and people you care about.

Get more tips on supporting kids who are bullied at The National Eating Disorders Association Helpline is available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, and it’s open on Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Contact the Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one. You may reach the Helpline at 800-931-2237.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.