An eating disorder is a focus on food and weight that causes a person to go to extremes when it comes to food and eating. Three of the most common eating disorders are binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia.
Eating disorders often develop during the teenage years or in early adulthood. They are more common among teenage girls but can affect teenage boys, too. They can be very stressful and damaging to a teen’s overall well-being. The social effects include low self-esteem and isolation. Eating disorders can cause serious health problems that can become life-threatening.
It’s not unusual for teens to change their eating habits from time to time. Some teens experiment with a different eating style (for example, a vegetarian diet) or go on a diet to lose weight. They may occasionally skip a meal. Often, these changes pass quickly. Watch your teen’s behavior and eating patterns carefully so that you can tell the difference between occasional dieting and an eating disorder.
There are many different signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Sometimes they are obvious, but not always. Often, a person will work very hard to hide an eating disorder.
The box below lists some signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms, talk to your teen’s doctor. He or she can help evaluate your teen’s specific symptoms and recommend the best way to help.
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder in which a person regularly (more than 3 times a week) consumes large amounts of food in a short timeframe (called bingeing). People who have binge eating disorder are often embarrassed by the amount of food they eat. They may hide food for binges. People who have this disorder often try to diet without success or promise to stop eating so much. They feel that they can’t control the urge to keep eating large amounts of food. As a result, they tend to become overweight or obese.
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.
People who have bulimia eat a lot of food at once (binge), and then throw up or use laxatives to remove the food from the body (called purging). After a binge, a person who has bulimia might fast (not eat for a period of time) or exercise excessively to keep from gaining weight. People who have bulimia may also use water pills, laxatives, or diet pills to "control" their weight. They 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.
Doctor don't know exactly what causes eating disorders. A person who has an eating disorder may feel stressed out or upset about something in his or her life. He or she may feel the need to be perfect or "in control." Some people may be reacting to the way their body changes during puberty. Society and media images also put a lot of pressure on people to be thin. This pressure may contribute, too.
If your teen has an eating disorder, the sooner you do something the better. By getting help early, your teen can prevent the health risks associated with eating disorders.
Talk to your family doctor. A teen who has an eating disorder needs professional help to treat his or her body and mind. Often, teens need counseling to talk through how they feel about their weight and other issues in their life. Your doctor may also want you to take your teen to see a dietitian to learn how to develop healthy eating habits.
It’s also very important to be sure your teen feels loved and supported by family and friends during treatment for an eating disorder. Feeling secure and accepted can help form a strong foundation so your teen can begin to learn new, healthier habits.
Talking to your teen about your concerns that he or she has an eating disorder will probably be hard. Be prepared. Your teen will probably deny that he or she has a problem.
Let your teen know that the discussion is not optional. Set a time to talk with your teen, and open the conversation in a loving and gentle manner. Avoid accusations or judgments, but be persistent in expressing your concerns. Talk in “I” sentences (for example, “I am concerned for you.”). Avoid “you” statements (for example, “You are sneaking food.”).
Often, it helps simply to let your teen know you are there to help and support him or her. Realize your teen is facing many changes and social pressures. Your main role may be to listen.
Here are some tips to help your teen develop a healthy attitude toward food and exercise:
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Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff