Teens and Eating Disorders

Just like adults, teens suffer from stress in many different ways. For many people, food can become one way of dealing with stress. We have an obesity epidemic from overeating, and on the other extreme, we have too many teenagers who suffer from drastic weight loss – both of which have a very negative impact on a teen’s health.

Eating disorders are so common in America that 1 or 2 out of every 100 students will struggle with one. They are most common in females. An eating disorder is considered a psychological problem. It involves an unhealthy obsession with food, whether the obsession is limiting intake, or whether the food obsession involves overindulging regularly. The most common eating disorders are linked with body image, and most teens with eating disorders feel that they must take drastic measures to lose weight.

There are several types of eating disorders, but the two most common types are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (usually called simply “anorexia” and “bulimia” and are explained below).  Each eating disorder has its own possible signs. However, all eating disorders common in teens include extreme concern over body weight, as well as feelings of shame associated with weight gain. All eating disorders can have unhealthy consequences, creating nutrient problems, growth problems, and weight problems in teens. Weighing too little is a weight problem, as is rapid and excessive weight gain.


People with anorexia have an extreme fear of weight gain and a distorted view of their body size and shape. As a result, they can’t maintain a normal body weight. Some people with anorexia restrict their food intake by dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise. They hardly eat at all — and the small amount of food they do eat becomes an obsession. Signs of anorexia include:

  • becomes very thin, frail, or emaciated
  • obsessed with eating, food, and weight control
  • weighs herself or himself repeatedly
  • counts or portions food carefully
  • only eats certain foods, avoiding foods like dairy, meat, wheat, etc. (of course, lots of people who are allergic to a particular food or are vegetarians avoid certain foods)
  • exercises excessively
  • experiences reduction in, or complete loss of, menstrual periods
  • feels overweight, despite dramatic weight loss
  • withdraws from social activities, especially meals and celebrations involving food
  • may be depressed, lethargic (lacking in energy), and feel cold a lot


Bulimia is similar to anorexia. With bulimia, a person binge eats (eats a lot of food) and then tries to compensate in extreme ways, such as forced vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise, to prevent weight gain. Over time, these steps can be dangerous. Signs of bulimia include:

  • fears weight gain
  • intensely unhappy with body size, shape, and weight
  • makes excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
  • may only eat diet or low-fat foods (except during binges)
  • regularly buys laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
  • spends most of his or her time working out or trying to work off calories
  • experiences out-of-control feelings when binging
  • has reddened or dry index fingers (indicating induced vomiting)
  • withdraws from social activities, especially meals and celebrations involving food


We do not know what causes teen eating disorders, likely because the root factors are complex and intertwined. The best things a parent can do to help prevent this condition is to help your teen develop healthy attitudes about proper nutrition, appropriate exercise and acceptance of his or her body by teaching and demonstrating good eating habits. Look at your own habits as well. Do you talk about weight a lot (whether it’s your own, your child’s or celebrities)? Are you role modeling healthy habits?

Getting Help

Do not try to help them yourself, even if the sufferer is family. Instead, help the person obtain the professional help they need. Meantime, don’t be judgmental, don’t try to control or “persuade” the person to change, but don’t ignore the problem either. Therapy is critical. Medical and psychological services will likely be necessary, as well as plenty of loving support from friends and family. The key is helping the affected teen understand that he or she is loved, no matter how they look.


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