Understanding Teenage Eating Disorders

By:    Published: March 6, 2012

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Eating disorders are a serious problem among teens in the United States. According to KidsHealth.org, about 1 or 2 out of every 100 students suffers from an eating disorder. That number is significantly higher if only females are taken into account – the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports that as many as 10 out of every 100 young women suffers from an eating disorder.

Additionally, individuals who are in their teens or early 20s are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those in any other age group, says The Mayo Clinic. It’s important for parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of these disorders in order to prevent serious health problems for their child.

What Is An Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are health conditions that occur when individuals become preoccupied with their weight and the foods they eat. The preoccupation becomes so intense that people may spend almost all of their time thinking about food and weight, leading them to make destructive decisions when it comes to their diet.

Eating disorders typically lead to the development of an unhealthy weight, which may eventually become life-threatening. In addition, these disorders can be especially dangerous for teens since they are not receiving proper nutrition during important developmental stages.

The health complications of eating disorders in teens can involve:

  • Depression
  • Delayed growth
  • Bone loss
  • Digestive problems
  • Kidney damage
  • Tooth decay
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Anemia
  • Gallbladder disease
  • High blood pressure

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia involves a person eating very little food through an extreme diet or fasting. Individuals with this eating disorder often exercise excessively as well. Bulimia, on the other hand, involves a process called binging and purging. This occurs when someone eats to excess, then tries to compensate for it through forced vomiting.

Another eating disorder which is less common but just as dangerous is binge eating disorder. This condition involves regularly binging on food. However, the person does not try to compensate through vomiting or excessive exercise as with bulimia.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors which increase a teen’s chances of developing an eating disorder. Parents with children who fall into one or more of these high-risk categories should be especially vigilant about whether their teens have an eating disorder:

  • Being female
  • Involvement in certain athletic or artistic activities (dancers, models, gymnasts, runners and wrestlers are among those who are more likely to develop these disorders)
  • Family history of eating disorders
  • Family problems
  • Dieting
  • Emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Difficult transitions, such as entering college, starting a new job or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend

Recognizing An Eating Disorder

One of the best ways that parents can recognize whether their teen has an eating disorder is to know the signs and symptoms of the various eating disorders. Below, the main symptoms of each type of eating disorder are listed.

  • Anorexia: Thin appearance, preoccupation with food, excessive exercise, refusing to eat, denying hunger, frequently feeling cold, lack of emotion, dizziness, soft hair on the body, dry skin, constipation, abdominal pain, menstrual irregularities, low blood pressure, dehydration, irregular heart rhythms.
  • Bulimia: Overeating to the point of discomfort, eating sweet or fatty foods excessively, self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, excessive exercising, visiting the bathroom after or during meals, preoccupation with weight, abnormal bowel problems, damaged teeth and gums, sores in the throat and mouth, swollen salivary glands in the cheeks, sores or calluses on the knuckles or hands, dehydration, menstrual irregularities, drug or alcohol use.
  • Binge eating disorder: Eating to the point of discomfort, eating quickly, eating alone or in secret, feelings of depression or disgust.

Other common symptoms which may be present with any of the above eating disorders include:

  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Negative or distorted body image
  • Not wanting to eat in public
  • Frequently looking in the mirror
  • Wearing baggy or layered clothing
  • Adopting rigid eating rituals

Getting Help

Parents who believe that their teen has an eating disorder have several options when it comes to getting help. The first step is to talk to your teen about their eating issues and taking them to see a doctor. From there, doctors can address the eating disorder with one or more treatment options, including nutrition education and healthy eating plans. Those with binge eating disorder may also need a supervised weight loss program. Many teens with eating disorders benefit from psychotherapy to address the mental issues associated with their condition. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary for a full recovery.

It’s important to know that, though many teens may deny that they have an eating disorder or avoid getting help, it’s important for those affected to get treatment as soon as possible.

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