At what point should I worry about my teenage child’s weight and eating behavior?
Weight and eating behavior problems can be very stressful and damaging to your teen’s overall well-being. The social effects include low self-esteem and isolation. The physical health effects that can develop as your child grows into an adult can be serious.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, talk to your family doctor. Your doctor can help determine whether your child has a weight problem by calculating his or her body mass index (BMI). The BMI is an approximate measure of body fat. It is based on your child’s height and weight.
You can also observe your teen’s behavior and eating patterns. People who have an eating problem or disorder are usually very preoccupied with food and their weight. They can go to extremes when it comes to food and eating. Eating disorders can cause serious health problems that can become life-threatening.
What are the signs of an eating problem or disorder?
Signs of eating disorders are sometimes obvious, but not always. Often, teens may work very hard to hide an eating disorder. You may suspect your teen has an eating disorder if you notice certain patterns of behavior or physical symptoms, or find food missing from the cupboards, or empty containers hidden in your teen’s room or elsewhere.
The box to the right lists a few signs and symptoms of some of the most common eating problems and disorders. Signs and symptoms of eating problems and disorders are numerous and varied. If you notice and become concerned about any of the signs and symptoms listed in the box below, talk to your child’s doctor. He or she can help evaluate your child’s specific symptoms, and recommend the best way to help your child.
Signs and symptoms of eating problems and disorders
- Eating in response to emotions, not to satisfy hunger
- Feeling an urgent need to eat
- Craving a specific food or type of food
- Gaining excess weight
- Feeling guilty or remorseful
- Hiding empty containers of food
- Eating large amounts of food in short timeframes
- Eating even when not hungry
- Sneaking food
- Hiding food
- Eating alone
- Appearing to eat normally during meal times, and then eating larges amounts of food when others are not around
- Feeling disgusted, depressed or guilty after binging
- Sneaking food
- Hiding empty containers of food
- Skipping meals or eating only small portion sizes
- Avoiding eating around others
- Vomiting after eating
- Using water pills or laxatives
- Exercising excessively
- Keeping a normal weight or being slightly overweight
- Being overly thin
- Having a distorted self-perception (feeling overweight even they are very thin)
- Having fear of gaining weight
- Obsessing about food
- Constantly counting calories, carbohydrates, fat grams
- Creating “food rituals”
- Exercising too much
- Using diet pills, water pills or laxatives
- Binge eating and purging
- Missing or having irregular periods in girls
What is binge-eating disorder?
Binge-eating disorder is an eating disorder in which a person regularly (more than 3 times a week) consumes large amounts of food. People who have binge-eating disorder are often embarrassed by the amount of food they eat, and may hide food for binges. People who have this disorder often try to diet without success or promise to stop eating so much, but they can’t resist the compulsion to keep eating large amounts of food.
What are the health risks of overweight and obesity in teenagers?
The risks of being overweight or obese as an adult are greater if excess weight is gained during childhood or teenage years. Health conditions associated with overweight and obesity include heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea and some types of cancer.
What is anorexia?
People who have anorexia are obsessed with being thin. They don't want to eat, and they are afraid of gaining weight. They may constantly worry about how many calories they take in or how much fat is in their food. They may take diet pills, laxatives or water pills to lose weight. They may exercise too much. People who have anorexia usually think they're fat even though they're very thin. They may get so thin that they look like they're sick.
What is bulimia?
Bulimia is eating a lot of food at once (called bingeing), and then throwing up or using laxatives to remove the food from the body (called purging). After a binge, some bulimics fast (don't eat) or overexercise to keep from gaining weight. People who have bulimia may also use water pills, laxatives or diet pills to "control" their weight. People who have bulimia often try to hide their bingeing and purging. They may hide food for binges. People who have bulimia are usually close to normal weight, but their weight may go up and down.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is eating for comfort, out of boredom or in response to other emotions rather than eating for nutrition or because you are hungry. Children, teens and adults can experience emotional eating at one time or another.
How can I approach my child if I am concerned he or she may have an eating problem or disorder?
If your child is suffering from an eating disorder, the sooner you address the problem the better. By intervening early, you can help your child prevent the health risks associated with eating disorders and of being overweight or obese.
Talking with your child about a possible eating disorder or problem will probably be challenging, so be prepared. Most likely, your child will deny that there even is a problem.
Let your child know that the discussion is not optional. Set a time to talk with your child, and open the conversation in a loving and gentle manner, avoiding accusations or judgments. But be persistent in expressing your concerns. Talk in “I” sentences, such as “I am concerned for you.” Avoid “you” statements, such as, “You are sneaking food.”
Often, it helps simply to be compassionate and to let your child know you are there to help and support him or her. Realize your child is facing many changes and social pressures. Your main role initially may be to listen.
Health risks of eating disorders
- Weight gain (emotional eating, bulimia, binge eating)
- Trouble concentrating (anorexia)
- Stomach problems (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating)
- Heart problems (anorexia and bulimia)
- Osteoporosis (anorexia)
- Dry skin (anorexia)
- Kidney problems (bulimia)
- Dental problems (bulimia)
- Death in severe cases (anorexia)
What can I do to help my teen learn healthier habits?
If you suspect your child has an eating problem or disorder, talk to your family doctor. Children who have an eating disorder often need family and individual counseling (talking about their feelings, about their weight and other problems in their life). Your doctor may also want you to take your child to see a dietitian to learn how to pick healthy foods and eat at regular times.
It’s also very important to do what you can to ensure your child feels loved and supported by family and friends. Feeling secure and accepted can help form a strong foundation from which your child can begin to learn new, healthier habits.
Below are some specific tips on helping your child establish healthy habits toward food and exercise:
- Provide the best example you can with your own habits for eating healthy and following healthy exercise habits.
- Don’t complain about your own weight or refer to yourself as fat. Let your teen see that you accept your own body.
- Teach your teen about how the media distorts reality by showing thin models and perfect people when, in reality, people come in all shapes and sizes.
- Avoid evaluating and commenting on your teen’s physical appearance.
- Provide ample options for healthy food choices in the home.
- Encourage healthy physical activity.
- Don’t overreact if your teen skips a meal, decides to “go vegetarian” or goes on a diet. It is normal for teens to begin to change their eating habits. Often, these changes pass quickly.
- Build your teen’s self-esteem and self-respect. Compliment your child on his or her efforts, ask for your child’s opinion and encourage your child to cultivate his or her talents and interests.
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Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff