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Eating Disorders and Teenagers: Programs, Treatments, & Help

Teen Eating Disorder Overview

Studies have shown that more than half a million teenagers have eating disorders. Teenage girls are at greatest risk, with as many as 10 in 100 young women suffering from an eating disorder, but a growing number of teenage boys are struggling with eating disorders as well.

Eating disorders may begin as a diet or new workout routine that gets more restrictive and obsessive over time. Teens may stop spending time with family or friends in order to exercise longer, or may cut out food groups until their diet consists of a limited number of low-calorie foods.

The most common teen eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia — Restricting food intake by dramatically limiting calories and/or exercising excessively.
  • Bulimia — Binging on large amounts of food and then ridding the body of calories by purging. Purging behaviors may include forced vomiting, exercising excessively, or abusing laxatives or diuretics.
  • Binge Eating DisorderRegularly binging on large amounts of food without purging.

Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can be life-threatening. Health consequences may include heart conditions, kidney failure, diabetes, malnutrition, low blood pressure and anemia. Many teens with eating disorders also suffer from other problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Causes of Teen Eating Disorder

Eating disorders often begin in adolescence when teens are experiencing changes in their bodies, their hormones, their peer group, and the expectations at home and in school. Teen eating disorders often develop out of misdirected attempts to control some part of life, or to cope with difficult feelings or experiences. They are rarely about food.

While there is no single known cause of teen eating disorders, factors that may play a role include:

  • Genetics
  • Home environment (growing up around role models who diet or worry excessively about their weight)
  • Weight-related bullying or peer pressure
  • Hormonal changes
  • Personality (being a perfectionist, a chronic worrier or extremely sensitive to criticism)
  • Social pressures and images in the media
  • Low self-esteem
  • Other mental health issues (such as anxiety, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Having a career or hobby that emphasizes weight or size (such as dance, modeling or athletics)
  • Stressful life events (such as divorce or loss of a loved one)
  • Unhealthy or abusive relationships

Symptoms of Teen Eating Disorder

Teens with eating disorders are preoccupied with their weight, spending much of their time counting calories, exercising compulsively and planning ways to hide their behavior from others.

The symptoms of teen anorexia may include:

  • Losing a significant amount of weight or looking very thin or emaciated
  • Obsession with food, body shape and weight
  • Frequent weigh-ins
  • Eating a limited number of foods
  • Exercising excessively
  • Withdrawing from friends, family or activities
  • Lack of energy
  • Complaining of feeling cold
  • Perfectionistic thinking
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of periods

The symptoms of teen bulimia may include:

  • Obsession with food, body shape and weight
  • Binging on large amounts of food
  • Self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives, diuretics or enemas
  • Strict dieting followed by binges
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • Hiding behaviors by running water in the bathroom
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Withdrawing from friends, family or activities
  • Tooth decay
  • Swollen cheeks

The symptoms of teen binge eating disorder may include:

  • Consuming large amounts of food or eating continuously throughout the day
  • Eating rapidly or until uncomfortably full
  • Inability to control eating
  • Frequent dieting
  • Feeling disgusted, ashamed or guilty after binging
  • Hiding food or eating in secret
  • Eating to cope with stress or other difficult emotions

Treatment For Eating Disorders

Teens with eating disorders are often in denial. They may believe that their eating and exercise habits are normal, or that they are simply doing what it takes to maintain their desired weight. The voice of the eating disorder may become so strong that teens stop caring about their health and well-being, going to any lengths necessary to lose weight.

If an eating disorder is detected and treated early, the adolescent may require counseling or outpatient eating disorder treatment. In more severe cases, residential eating disorder treatment is often necessary. If a teen’s life is in immediate danger from medical or psychiatric problems, such as suicidal thoughts or behaviors or severe malnutrition, hospitalization may be required.

Treatment for teen eating disorders may include:

  • Individual, group and family therapy
  • Medical monitoring
  • Medication
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Grocery store and restaurant outings

Unhealthy patterns become harder to treat the longer they go on. Eating disorders do not go away on their own and can get much worse over time. If you notice eating disorder symptoms in your teen or your friend, start the conversation about getting help today. With treatment, teens can develop healthier coping skills and positive self-esteem.