‘I regret not catching it sooner’: Orlando mom raises awareness about eating disorders

ORLANDO, Fla. — The last week of February is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The disease affects millions of Americans every year, especially teenagers. Although people are more open to conversations, there is still a stigma about the topic. “I regret just not catching it sooner,” said Pamela Dove, a teacher and now eating disorders advocate. “Watch for the warning signs and get the help you need as early as you can.”


Dove’s daughter, Melody, is a survivor who battled an eating disorder for years. “My daughter developed an eating disorder through a school project where she learned how to eat healthily,” said Dove. “To me, that seemed normal. So, we all joined her in this project. But that project became obsessive for her.”

Pamela Dove, just like many parents, did not notice what was going on with her daughter for a while. When she did, it was too late. “We always saw these movies on TV that showed people with anorexia not eating at all, then in the hospital bed. That was not my experience,” said Dove. “My friend saw her and said, ‘Pam, you need to get her help,’ and gave me the resources that I need for a dietitian in the area that specializes in eating disorders. It was after she visited that dietitian and had to go to the hospital for heart rate in the 30s that she was then able to admit what was going on.”

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According to the National Association of Anorexia, nearly 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, and more than 10,000 die each year. It’s the second deadliest mental illness in the country, only behind opioid addiction. “It was terrifying,” remembered Dove. “For the first time in my life, I was concerned that my daughter might not live.”

Making matters worse is social media. Each year, the use of platforms like Instagram or TikTok becomes more and more part of our everyday life, especially among teens – who are most at risk of developing an eating disorder. “Eating disorders, while they thrive in shame and secrecy, comparison as we all know, is the killer of joy; it is what will cause you to question everything about yourself,” said Jennifer Hounshell, Regional Director, Center for Discovery Eating Disorder Treatment. “thoughts like ‘I should look this way; I should do this,’ always comparing yourself to something that, honestly, on social media, is not even real.”

Right now, the State Legislature is considering a bill that would ban the use of social media by teens 16 and under. The hope is the measure would help prevent triggers that could trickle down into an eating disorder and other mental health illnesses. “Your brain is still developing; we’ve got to make sure children have the opportunity to develop as children,” said Rep. Paul Renner, Florida House Speaker. “When you’re my age, you just don’t care what people think, but when you’re younger, you really do, and that can really wreck you in terms of your mental health.”

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What should parents be looking out for as possible warning signs?

Because it might be difficult for parents to see the signs of an eating disorder when it’s already too late, there are warning signs you could look for and maybe open a dialogue with your children. “If they’re so focused on the dieting, weight loss, and that becomes so consuming, it’s a sign. If there’s a lot of weight cycling – either weight gain or weight loss, or if you’re seeing a lot of fluctuations in mood,” said Marissa Jones, Certified Eating Disorders Specialist. “Even at the table – if they start to have different patterns or rituals, or cutting different food groups out, could be some signs we could be paying more attention to.”

Top 3 things parents should pay attention to if they think their child might be struggling with an eating disorder, according to the experts:

1 – Avoiding eating with others in public – children and teens who could be struggling with an eating disorder tend to avoid eating in public (at family gatherings, friend’s parties, and other social situations). They might say they are not hungry or will eat later to take the attention off the topic.

2 – Irritability and sadness following meals – for someone dealing with an eating disorder, the act of eating becomes distressing. The teen can become irritated or sad because of the feeling of shame and anxiety caused by ingesting food.

3 – Increase in weight talk, body image talk - notice emotional and behavioral changes, such as increased irritability, social withdrawal, anxiety about body image, or preoccupation with weight and appearance.

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Experts also said dialogue is the key. “Have an open conversation with your child, always. Check in with them, daily or even weekly, to see how they are doing, so that you will have a good pulse just in general about their mental health,” said Certified Eating Disorders Specialist Marissa Jones. “Maybe after school, ask them how their day was, and be really intentional to have one-on-one time with your kid, making sure you know what their interests are, so you can have a conversation with them.”

Jones also said making time for family meals is extremely important. “That can be really tough for families because we all have busy schedules,” she said. “Everybody has extracurricular activities. But research shows family meals are crucial in mental health, not only in preventing eating disorders.” Pamela Dove also echoed the importance of dialogue between parents and their children. “They say that eating disorders are a communication disorder. So, as a family, we had to learn to connect in better and different ways,” she said. “I would say to families out there that it’s so important to take time to just be with your kids.”

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