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Rescue Your Teen from an Eating Disorder


Información en español

Teenagers often have strong emotional reactions accompanied by feelings of being frustrated, overwhelmed, moody, tired, and angry. As a parent, how can you tell if physical and psychological stressors have led your teen to resort to eating disorders?

Many teens, concerned about their health, weight, and appearance may become fixated with diet and exercise and develop an eating disorder. The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), risk factors for all eating disorders involve a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural issues. Teenage girls and young women are more likely than teenage boys and young men to have anorexia or bulimia, but males can have eating disorders as well.

Teenage boys concerned about their body image may strive for a perfect body by dieting or exercising compulsively. Kristin Francis, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor for the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah, lends her expertise to detecting and diagnosing eating disorders, suicide, and common triggers in teenagers. Francis notes, "Teen boys often feel pressure to build muscle and may use supplements to build muscle mass or to be 'lean.'"

Know Common Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can affect a person's physical and mental health and can be life-threatening. NEDA identifies the following most common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa—characterized by weight loss and difficulty maintaining an appropriate body weight for age, height, and stature.
  • Bulimia Nervosa—a cycle of binge eating and compensatory behaviors of self-induced vomiting, laxative use, exercise, or dietary restriction, to alleviate the effects of binge eating.
  • Binge Eating Disorder—the most common eating disorder in the United States; characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food followed by feelings of shame, distress, and guilt. 
  • Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder—category for individuals who don't meet strict diagnostic criteria for other eating disorders but still have significantly disordered eating that impairs their functioning, mood, relationships, and health.
  • Rumination Disorder—an individual regurgitates their food that is not mixed with digestive juices, re-chews it, and either swallows it again or spits it out.
  • Orthorexia—describes an obsession with proper or overly healthy eating. This obsession often results in an increasingly limited food variety and intake and requires an increasing amount of energy, time, and focus with unintended health consequences.
  • Compulsive Exercise—characterized by excessive and extreme exercise that significantly interferes with other areas of life.
  • Laxative Abuse—serious and dangerous; involves the repeated, frequent use of laxatives to eliminate unwanted calories, lose weight, or feel thin or empty.

Learn Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Let your teen know you're concerned if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Skipping most meals
  • Unusual eating habits, such as overeating or consuming less food than usual
  • Frequent weighing
  • Extreme weight change
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Skin rash or dry skin
  • Dental cavities
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Loss of hair or nail quality
  • Hyperactivity and high interest in exercise

Teens with eating disorders often deny that anything is wrong and may rebuke your attention to their symptoms. They may be moody, anxious, depressed, withdraw from friends, or become overly sensitive to criticism. Teens may try to keep hidden their symptoms and triggers such as trauma, insecurities, depression, or low self-esteem.

Talk to Your Teen

If you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, talk to them in a loving and non-confrontational way. Express your concern about changes in their food consumption, including eating habits, variety and amount of food, energy levels, moods, or withdrawal from social settings. Discuss media messages, promote a healthy body image, foster self-esteem, and examine the dangers of dieting and emotional eating. Francis says, "Encourage mindful eating of a variety of foods and avoid moralizing foods—no foods are 'good' or 'bad.'"

Schedule a checkup for your teen with their doctor. A physician can reinforce healthy messages about eating habits, exercise routines, and body image and can refer your teen to a mental health provider for extensive consultation, diagnosis, and treatment recommendations.

Review Treatments for Eating Disorders

With treatment, people can recover completely from eating disorders. Regimens vary depending on the type of disorder but may generally include psychotherapy; prescription drugs, including antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs; nutritional counseling; and individual, group, and family psychotherapy.

Francis emphasizes, "With early detection and intervention, we can reduce the severity and recurrence of eating disorders."