Ask an Expert: My daughter eats nothing all day

I’m worried about my daughter’s eating habits. She has been eating nothing from waking up to getting home from school, when she will stuff herself and then not eat dinner, or – if I am around to manage it – eat a bit of afternoon tea and then at least two serves of dinner. Is it anything to worry about or just typical of teen girls? I can’t see that she’s losing weight. 

Thank you for your question and sharing your concerns about your daughter’s eating habits. It definitely sounds as though you have picked up on some changes in her eating, and I can imagine how these may have been somewhat worrying for you. Although teenagers’ eating habits can be somewhat erratic at times, it might be worthwhile to keep an eye on your daughter’s eating patterns. While there does not seem to be any noticeable weight loss at this point, there also does not appear to be a regular eating pattern or structure in her routine. In fact, as you have described, she appears to be restricting her food intake during the day and then ‘compensating’ for this in the evening.

I’m not too sure about why your daughter is refraining from eating during the day (ie whether she does not have enough time to eat or is too preoccupied with other activities, is restricting her food intake to maintain/lose weight, or feels self-conscious about eating in front of her peers etc), however, not having some form of regular eating during the day and going for too long a period without food (especially on an ongoing basis) could be somewhat problematic. In fact, deprivation or starvation often triggers a cascade of physiological responses, such as increased hunger levels/cravings, preoccupation with thoughts around food, and decreased energy (in addition to other changes around mood, cognition, and concentration) – which, understandably, sets people up to overeat or binge eat eventually, as restriction is often not sustainable and the body will try to ‘fight back’ to maintain homeostasis and its nutrient/fat stores. Given this, this probably explains your daughter’s behaviour of eating more than usual in the evening after going through the day with little or nothing to eat.

It can often be challenging to distinguish between ‘normal’ dieting and an eating disorder, particularly in the early stages – and as my knowledge about your daughter’s situation is somewhat limited at this point, I am inclined to keep my response tentative. However, research has shown that dieting is a significant predictor for the development of disordered eating/an eating disorder later on. In addition, people with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, so it might be helpful to recognise early warning signs and symptoms that could suggest a deeper problem. For example, this could include watching out for other changes in her eating habits (eg only eating certain types of foods, cutting out whole food groups etc.) and listening to the thoughts or concerns she may express around eating/food/her body (e.g. being preoccupied with body/weight or calories/nutrition).

There are also some great resources online on eating disorders which may be useful – perhaps have a look at The Butterfly Foundation, the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria and the National Eating Disorders Association.

Also, if you do start to notice some of these signs and symptoms, it may feel difficult to discuss these with your daughter, but don’t let this stop you from raising your concerns. It can often be helpful to convey your worries in a non-judgmental and caring way, and to avoid power struggles around eating (such as demanding that she changes her behaviours or criticising her), as this could make her become angry and defensive. It may also be useful to focus your concerns around the changes in her moods, behaviours and/or relationships, rather than basing the discussions around food and weight.

Even if your daughter is unable or reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of a problem at this point, at least you have communicated your ongoing concern and support for her. In addition, don’t hesitate to seek professional help early, if necessary.

I hope this helps and I wish you all the best.

Dr Ameerah Mattar, Clinical Psychologist, BodyMatters Australasia

 

Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.

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