For Parents: Eating Disorders in Teens

An eating disorder is a focus on food and bodyweight that causes a person to go to extremes when it comes to 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’re 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. This will help you spot the difference between occasional dieting and an eating disorder.

There are many different signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Sometimes they’re obvious, but not always. Often, a person will work very hard to hide an eating disorder. The below lists some signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms in your teen, talk to your doctor. He or she can help evaluate your teen’s specific symptoms and recommend the best way to help.

Common eating disorders

Binge eating disorder

A binge eater regularly (at least once a week for 3 months) consumes large amounts of food in a short timeframe (called bingeing) with lack of control. People who have binge eating disorder are often embarrassed by the amount of food they eat. They may hide food for binges and binge in private. People who have this disorder often try to diet without success or promise to stop eating so much. They feel they can’t control the urge to keep eating large amounts of food. As a result, they may become overweight or obese.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder

  • Eating large amounts of food in a short timeframe.
  • Eating even when not hungry.
  • Eating to the point of feeling uncomfortable.
  • Sneaking food.
  • Hiding food.
  • Eating alone.
  • Eating normally during mealtimes, and then eating large amounts of food when others aren’t around.
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after eating large amounts of food.

Health risks of binge eating disorder

Bulimia

People who have bulimia eat a lot of food at once (binge). They then throw up or use laxatives to remove the food from their body (called purging). After a binge, a person who has bulimia might fast (not eat for a period of time). Or they may 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.

Symptoms of bulimia

  • 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.
  • Fasting (not eating for a period of time).
  • Exercising excessively.

Health risks of bulimia

  • Weight gain.
  • Stomach problems.
  • Heart problems.
  • Kidney problems.
  • Dental problems.
  • Death, in severe cases.

Anorexia

People who have anorexia are obsessed with being thin. They don’t want to eat, and they’re 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.

Symptoms of anorexia

  • Being very thin.
  • Feeling overweight in spite of being very thin.
  • Fear of gaining weight.
  • Obsessing about food.
  • Constantly counting calories, carbohydrates, and fat grams.
  • Creating “food rituals” (for example, chewing each bite a certain number of times).
  • Exercising excessively.
  • Using diet pills, water pills, or laxatives.
  • Missing periods or having irregular periods.
  • Feeling cold all the time.
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss.

Health risks of anorexia

  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Stomach problems.
  • Heart problems.
  • Kidney problems.
  • Osteoporosis.
  • Dry skin and hair.
  • Weakness.
  • Death, in severe cases.

Path to improved health

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. He or she may make several recommendations. He or she may want to talk with your teen. Your doctor may also do medical tests to make sure a physical issue isn’t your teen’s underlying health problem. Also, 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. Additionally, your doctor may refer your teen to a dietitian to learn how to develop healthy eating habits.

Also, it’s 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.

How can I talk to my teen about my concerns?

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 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 that 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:

  • Provide the best example you can with your own habits for healthy eating and exercise.
  • Show your teen that you accept your own body. Don’t complain about your own weight or refer to yourself as fat.
  • Show acceptance for different body shapes and sizes. Don’t criticize other people’s weight or physical appearance.
  • Teach your teen that the media isn’t real life. The media shows only thin models and “perfect” people when real people come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Avoid commenting on your teen’s weight or physical appearance.
  • Provide lots of healthy food options in your home.
  • Talk about the benefits of physical activity to stay healthy and strong, not to lose weight.
  • Build your teen’s self-esteem and self-respect. Compliment your teen on his or her efforts. Ask for your teen’s opinion. Encourage him or her to pursue talents and interests.

Things to consider

Doctors 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.

Eating habits develop very early in life. Perhaps even between the ages of 12-24 months. Parents can influence how children view food. That is why it is so important to establish good eating early in life.

Questions for your doctor

  • What should I do if I suspect my teen has an eating disorder?
  • My teen doesn’t like to eat in front of anyone. Should I worry?
  • My teen is always dieting, and I’m concerned. What can I do?
  • How can I tell if my teen is at a healthy weight?
  • What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
  • Will vitamins help fill the nutrition gap for my teen?

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