Teen eating disorders can take a devastating toll on adolescents — especially teen girls. To help protect your teen, understand the possible causes of teen eating disorders and know how to talk to your teen about healthy eating habits.
Why teens develop eating disorders
Teens develop eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — for many reasons. For example:
- Societal pressure. Modern Western culture tends to place a premium on being physically attractive and having a perfect body. Even with a normal body weight, teens can easily develop the perception that they're fat. This can trigger an obsession with losing weight, dieting and being thin, especially for teen girls.
- Low self-esteem. Teens who have low self-esteem may use their eating habits or weight loss to achieve a sense of stability or control.
- Family stress. Problems at home, including perceived high parental expectations for achievement and appearance, can play a role in the development of teen eating disorders.
- Favorite activities. Participation in sports and activities that value leanness — such as wrestling, running and ballet — sometimes contribute to teen eating disorders.
- Personal factors. Some teens may be more likely to develop eating disorders due to personality traits or genetics. Eating disorders can run in families.
Consequences of teen eating disorders
Teen eating disorders can cause serious and even life-threatening health problems, including:
- Heart disease, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, anemia and type 2 diabetes
- Depression, which may spiral to suicidal thoughts or behavior
- Delayed growth and hair and bone loss
- Seizures, heart palpitations and, for girls, absence of menstruation (amenorrhea)
- Digestive problems, kidney damage and tooth decay
Talking about teen eating disorders
Talking to your teen about eating disorders may not be easy. Still, it's an important topic. When you discuss teen eating disorders, you might:
- Encourage healthy eating habits. Talk to your teen about how diet can affect his or her health, appearance and energy level. Encourage your teen to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to avoid skipping meals. Make healthy eating easy for your teen by eating together as a family.
- Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies, Web sites and magazines may send your teen the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your teen to talk about and question what he or she has seen or heard — especially from Web sites or other sources that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than an eating disorder (commonly called "pro-ana" sites).
- Encourage a healthy body image. Talk to your teen about his or her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Your acceptance and respect can help your teen build self-esteem and resilience. Encourage family and friends to refrain from using hurtful nicknames and joking about people who are overweight or have a large body frame.
- Discuss the dangers of dieting, obsessing about food and emotional eating. Explain that dieting can compromise your teen's nutrition, growth and health. Remind your teen that eating or controlling his or her diet isn't a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage your teen to talk to family, friends or a counselor about problems he or she may be facing.
Other preventive strategies
In addition to talking to your teen, consider other strategies to prevent teen eating disorders:
- Team up with your teen's doctor. Your teen's doctor can help identify early indicators of an eating disorder and prevent the development of full-blown illness. For instance, the doctor can ask your teen questions about eating habits and satisfaction with his or her appearance during routine medical appointments. These visits should include checks of body mass index and weight percentiles, which can alert you and your teen's doctor to any significant changes.
- Set a good example. If you're constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you may have a hard time encouraging your teen to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with his or her appearance. Set a good example by eating healthy foods and taking pride in your body.
Recognizing the warning signs of teen eating disorders
Teens who have eating disorders can become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else. Keep an eye out for these red flags:
- Unnatural concern about body weight, frequent weighing or dramatic weight fluctuations
- Preoccupation with preparing food for others and counting calories
- Anxiety at mealtimes, a desire to eat alone or unreasonable food restrictions
- Binge eating, fasting or following fad diets
- Fatigue, depression, complaints of an irregular heartbeat or abdominal pain, or, for girls, interruptions in menstruation
- Self-induced vomiting or frequent, long bathroom visits during or just after meals
- Unexplained disappearances of large quantities of food from the house
- Excessive exercising or moodiness
- Using laxatives, diet pills or diuretics to lose weight
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide thinness
Seeking help for teen eating disorders
If you suspect that your teen has an eating disorder, talk to him or her. Encourage your teen to open up about his or her problems and concerns. In addition, schedule a medical checkup for your teen. Your teen's doctor can talk to your teen about his or her eating habits, exercise routine and body image, and may do tests to detect any possible complications. Depending on the severity of the eating disorder, treatment may involve individual or family counseling, nutrition education, medication and — if necessary — hospitalization. Remember, early diagnosis and treatment can help speed recovery.
Last Updated: 2010-04-22