Eating Disorders: What Teens and Parents Should Know

Eating disorders … what are they and what makes certain people more at risk for developing one?

Parents, take a moment to think back to when you were an adolescent, easily impressionable, striving to be well-liked. You often skimmed through magazines such as J-14, Bop, or Cosmo Girl, looking at rail-thin models and celebrities and thinking, “Wow, I wish I looked like that.” What you didn’t know at the time was that all those images were severely photoshopped to fit the media’s definition of beauty.

Now, consider today’s world where we have constant input from social media and can hide behind filters of what society wants us to believe is “beautiful.” The pressure to conform to an idealized body image can be high. And it isn’t just teens. Unfortunately, eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, racial/ethnic background, body type, or gender.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a condition where people avoid or severely restrict food or eat very small quantities of only certain foods. They often obsess with weighing themselves, and while they may be dangerously underweight, they still see themselves as being overweight.

Some people with anorexia may be restrictive while others may binge and purge. Those that are restrictive, limit the amount and type of food they consume, while those that binge-purge also restrict the amount or type of food they eat but may have episodes where they eat large amounts of food in a short time, followed by vomiting or using laxatives to rid their body of what they consumed.

Symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • Extremely restricted eating and/or intensive and excessive exercise
  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body or self-image that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape
  • Denial of the seriousness of low body weight

This can lead to serious health complications such as:

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Mild anemia
  • Muscle wasting and weakness
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • Severe constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing and pulse
  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility
  • Brain damage
  • Multiple organ failure

Bulimia nervosa

People with bulimia have recurrent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over their eating, followed by behaviors such as forceful vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors. Unlike those with anorexia, those with bulimia may maintain a normal weight or be overweight.

Symptoms and health consequences include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth from exposure to stomach acid when vomiting
  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration from purging
  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium, and other minerals) which can lead to stroke or heart attack

Binge eating

With binge eating disorder, people lose control of their eating and have recurring episodes of eating an unusually large amount of food. However, unlike bulimia, this is not followed by periods of purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result of this, these individuals may be overweight or obese.

Symptoms may include:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a short amount of time, for example, within two hours
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating even when full or not hungry
  • Eating until uncomfortably full
  • Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment
  • Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder

Formerly called selective eating disorder, this condition is most common in middle childhood and occurs when individuals limit the amount or type of a certain food. This is usually not due to a distorted body image or fear of gaining weight. While it is normal for children to go through picky eating phases, a child with this disorder does not eat enough calories to grow and develop properly.

Symptoms include:

  • Dramatic restriction of types or amount of food eaten
  • Lack of appetite or interest in food
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Upset stomach, abdominal pain, or other gastrointestinal issues with no other known cause
  • Limited range of preferred foods that becomes even more limited (“picky eating” that gets progressively worse)


Eating disorders are serious and can be deadly, but if detected early, treatment can be very successful in helping a person recover. Treatment modalities may include psychotherapy, medical care with monitoring, nutritional counseling, medications, or a combination of these approaches.

The goals of therapy include restoring adequate nutrition, bringing weight to a healthy level, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping any unwanted behaviors.

In addition, studies show that incorporating family into the treatment plan can improve treatment outcomes. If you or someone you know is suffering or thinks they are suffering from an eating disorder, please contact your primary care provider.

Additional resources

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Categories: Behavioral Health, Nutrition, Teens, Toddlers
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