About Eating Disorders
The information and resources contained in this section have been adapted from the Eating Disorders Fact Sheet for Educators developed by the UCLA School Mental Health Project and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Toolkit for Educators. These comprehensive resources have been created to help teachers and school staff learn more about the spectrum of eating disorders and the impact these potentially fatal illnesses have on individuals and families.
Background on the Spectrum of Eating Disorders
Eating Disorders (EDs) and eating related problems often result in under-nutrition, and in some cases, significant medical complications. EDs have also been associated with mental health disorders or symptoms which can affect cognitive functioning, and ability to learn.
Anorexia Nervosa (AN)
AN is a form of self-starvation characterized by low body weight (less
than 85 percent of normal weight for height and age) and a fear of weight gain or obesity as a consequence of eating.
Bulimia Nervosa (BN)
BN is characterized by binge-eating and inappropriate methods of compensating for binge eating, including purging behaviors (such as self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, enemas or diuretics) and non-purging behaviors such as fasting or excessive exercise (which is often overlooked by parents and teachers).
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)
A diagnosis of EDNOS is made when significant eating problems exist but specific criteria for AN or BN are not met. EDNOS, or partial EDs, are at least twice as prevalent as full syndrome EDs (AN and BN), and tend to begin with body dissatisfaction, becoming overly concerned about weight and shape, calorie restriction and dieting.
Obesity and the Continuum of Eating Disorders
The field of disordered eating is filled with controversies around causes, treatment and prevention, as well as around the relationship between obesity and eating disorders. Although some obese individuals may meet diagnostic criteria for BN, most do not report the presence of inappropriate methods of compensating mentioned above. Obesity is caused by many factors including genetics, environment and biology. Obesity also places the individual at risk for being teased or rejected which can lead to body dissatisfaction and trigger pressure to be thin and/or diet.
Read the entire Eating Disorders Fact Sheet for Educators here.
The signs and symptoms evident in a school setting
Young people often experience sudden variations in height and weight. For example, girls can gain an average of 40 pounds from age 11 to 14—and that’s normal. A girl or boy who puts on weight before having a growth spurt in height may look plump, while a student who grows taller but not heavier may appear rather thin. The points outlined below are not necessarily definitive signs or symptoms of an eating disorder—only an expert can diagnose. However, be concerned about the student who appears to be the “perfect” student or who strives for perfection. Be concerned if a student consistently shows one or more of the signs or symptoms listed below.
- Change in attitude/performance
- Expresses body image complaints/concerns: Talks about dieting; avoids nutritious foods because they are “fattening”
- Is overweight but appears to eat small portions in presence of others
- Appears sad/depressed/anxious/expresses feelings of worthlessness
- Is target of body or weight bullying
- Spends increasing amounts of time alone
- Is obsessed with maintaining low weight to enhance performance in sports, dance, acting, or modeling
- Overvalues self-sufficiency; reluctant to ask for help
- Sudden weight loss, gain, or fluctuation in short time
- Feeling faint, cold, or tired
- Dry hair or skin, dehydration, blue hands/feet
- Diets or chaotic food intake; pretends to eat, then throws away food; skips meals
- Exercises for long periods; exercises excessively every day (can’t miss a day)
- Constantly talks about food
- Makes frequent trips to the bathroom
- Wears very baggy clothes to hide a very thin body (anorexia) or weight gain (binge eating disorder) or hide “normal” body because of disease about body shape/size
- Shows some type of compulsive behavior
- Denies difficulty
If you are concerned that one of your students is struggling with an eating disorder, you are encouraged to contact NEDA to request their free toolkit (available as a printable PDF file). In addition to the signs and symptoms listed above, it contains information on these and other related topics:
- Common myths about eating disorders
- The impact of eating disorders on cognitive ability and functioning in school
- School strategies for assisting students with eating disorders
- Tips for communicating with parents/guardians
- Finding treatment for eating disorders
- Creating education plans for a student in treatment
- Tips for school psychologists, school nurses and coaches