Parenting with an Eating Disorder

Learning to help yourself and your children.

Posted Apr 02, 2013

Here’s what my teenage kids hate more than anything: When I start talking condoms and alcohol and drugs all those things that they think are none of my business but really are all of my business. As much as they squirm, I really don’t find those conversations tricky at all. I rather enjoy them. 

But there is one subject that seems to me—and apparently lots of other parents—to be a lot trickier than the sex-drug rant. Parents are more afraid about talking with their kids about weight than practically anything else.

As Dr. Cynthia Bulik, a professor of psychiatry at University of North Caroline, writes in her latest book, “we’re not afraid that a discussion of sex, drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol will damage our children’s self-esteem or trigger some sort of disorder,” but when it comes to weight and food, we fret over every single ramification. Will this comment hurt her self-image? Is it possible to encourage healthy eating without driving my kids to starve or sneak food. 

These issues are tough for all of us who want to raise kids with healthy attitudes about food and realistic goals about their own physiques. But they are particularly challenging for parents suffering with their own eating disorders. And this includes dads too.

Bulik’s new book is called Midlife Eating Disorders: Your Journey to Recovery. She is also the director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. And while there is no cookbook recipe for the right buzz words when it comes to food conversations, her book will serve as a guide for parents to learn to confront their own issues and figure out how they can prevent passing along the disorder to their children.

The real issue, these days, she said is the slippery slope between becoming a health fanatic—not always a bad thing—and a person with a disorder. The dividing line isn’t so clear-cut. Bulik says the folks who peddle juice cleansing drinks are “selling eating disorders.” I mean, what are you cleansing? Aren’t your insides messy and filled with beneficial bacteria?

“We don’t know where that line is between being healthful and being obsessed,” said Bulik. “It differs for different people. There are people who toe that purist line who claim they are fine but if they slide off the path, they feel guilty and distressed. I would say those are indicators of crossing the line.”

And eating disorders aren’t just about anorexia and bulimia. Binge eating, which can lead to obesity, is going to be, for the first time, included in the DSM-5, the psychiatrists' encyclopedia of mental illnesses. Some 3.5 percent of women and about 2 percent of men in America are binge eaters, meaning they severely limit their intake for hours and then have no control whatsoever on their intake. It isn’t the amount of food," said Bulik, so much as the feeling of being out of control. “Once you start, you can’t put the breaks on.”

Bulik says emerging evidence suggests it’s a toxic combination of biology and psychology. Some people are hardwired to be more reactive to food cues, she said, and the initial food limitations increase the temptation. Emerging evidence suggests that for some binge-eaters, their brains react to food the way a drug addict responds to heroine. The results are far from conclusive, but a recent review in the February 1st issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry concurs. As the authors state, nothing is confirmed but further research into the reward centers of the brain, particularly with binge eaters may “bring us closer to developing effective pharmacological and behavioral treatments for these deadly disorders.”

Bulik knows that a book called, Getting Over Your Eating Disorder” may not be something you want to walk around town with—and she did grapple with the title. But she wanted people to confront the reality of their situation. And besides, you can always be more discreet and get the e-version. Because this self-help book isn’t just about helping yourself, it’s really about helping your family.