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Teen Eating Disorders

What are teen eating disorders? What do teen statistics show? What are the signs or syptoms of teen eating disorders? This article will review these questions plus preventing teen eating disorders and getting treatment for an eating disorder.


Eating disorders affect about 1% of America's teens. Out of an average-sized high school class of 400, that means that about four of the students have an eating disorder (1). While eating disorders are more common in females, the number of males with eating disorders (especially anorexia) is on the rise. Learning about eating disorders is the first step toward recognizing and combating eating disorders in your teen.

What is an eating disorder?

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 (2).

The three most common teen eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia nervosa
  2. Bulimia nervosa
  3. Binging eating (also called compulsive eating)

All three of these 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.

Other eating disorders include pica (eating non-nutrient substances such as dirt and paint chips) and rumination (repeated regurgitation resulting in weight loss). These, however, are extremely rare in teens?mainly affecting infants and small children.

Health problems associated with teen eating disorders

The teen years are important in development. The changes that the body undergoes during these years require good nutrition (3). In addition to being too thin to be healthy, the foundations for brittle bones, iron deficiency and other problems related to a lack of nutrients can be laid during these years. In cases of anorexia and bulimia, the desire to become thin outweighs healthy decisions. And in some cases, the psychological body image is so negative that a teen always "feels fat," even when one is skinny.

Another problem is yo-yo dieting. This is especially prevalent in binge eating disorder. The teen binges, but feels guilty afterward and goes on a starvation diet. After a few days, or even weeks, the teen feels the compulsion to eat again. The binging can last several days, and result in weight gain, after a dramatic weight loss. Yo-yo dieting represents a significant health risk to the developing body (4).

Common signs of a teen with an eating disorder

Each eating disorder has its own possible signs. However, all three types of eating disorders common in teens include extreme concern over body weight, as well as feelings of shame associated with weight gain. Additionally, repeated cycles of "being on a diet" can be an indicator of any of the following eating disorders (5).

Anorexia nervosa:

  • Refuses to allow the body weight to rise above a minimally healthy weight, and often refuses to allow it to rise even to the level of minimally healthy 
  • Reduction in, or complete loss of, menstrual periods 
  • Feels overweight, regardless of dramatic weight loss

Bulimia nervosa:

  • Binges and then purges the calories through induced vomiting, laxative abuse, extreme exercise or diet pills. 
  • Reddened or dry index fingers (indicating induced vomiting) 
  • Out-of-control feelings when binging

Binge eating disorder: 

  • Regularly eats beyond the point of feeling full (binging), but does not purge 
  • Dramatic weight gain 
  • Feelings of shame and depression related to eating habits

Preventing teen eating disorders

Because the factors at the root of most teen eating disorders?negative self-esteem, cultural pressure to look a certain way, shame about one's body?are complex, it is important to recognize that preventing eating disorders involves compassion and understanding. You can help your teen develop healthy attitudes about proper nutrition, appropriate exercise and acceptance of his or her body by teaching good eating habits (6). Additionally, nurturing your teen's self-esteem and avoiding comments about weight can help prevent an eating disorder.

Getting help for an eating disorder

Therapy can help a teen recover from an eating disorder. However, your help as a parent is necessary. Medical and psychological services will likely be necessary, as well as plenty of loving support from friends and family (1). The key is helping the affected teen understand that he or she is loved, no matter how they look.


  1. kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/eat_disorder.html answers.com/topic/eating-disorder
  2. baptistonline.org/health/healthieryou/teen/onthegonutrients.asp
  3. kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/binge_eating.html
  4. nationaleatingdisorders.org/p.asp?WebPage_ID=286&Profile_ID=41145
  5. kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/feelings/eating_disorders.html

Related Article: Anorexic Teens >>

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