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Eating Disorders and Your Teen

Does your teen show signs of eating disorders, such as extreme dieting or severe overeating and purging? If you think your daughter could have anorexia or bulimia, find out how to recognize the signs and what you can do to help.


Eating disorders are a big concern for teenagers. In fact, the incidence of anorexia and bulimia peaks at age 16 to 20. Eating disorders often include compulsive and unhealthy reductions in food intake, severe overeating and an overall obsession with body shape and weight. Exercising too intensely or too often to maintain a sense of control and lose weight is also closely linked to eating disorders. Anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (overeating and then purging) are the two major eating disorders.

But concerns about body image and adopting unhealthy weight-management strategies are common even among students who are at their normal, healthy weight. It is estimated that half of girls between ages 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight, and 80 percent of 13-year-olds have tried to lose weight. And most girls at this age, even if they're happy with the way they look, have probably fallen into the trap of comparing themselves to others. Images of the female body on television, film, billboards and fashion magazines hype the idea that thin is in, leaving many girls with unrealistic expectations of what they should look like.

But being too thin can have dangerous, potentially life-threatening consequences (an estimated one in 10 women with an eating disorder will eventually die of starvation). Problems with eating can take a physical and emotional toll and often lead to social isolation and poor academic performance. So if you're concerned that your teen or someone you know struggles with food and/or weight issues, be sure to read on and seek professional help.

Watch for the Warning Signs
Because the pressures and competitive nature of college life and athletics can contribute to eating problems in some women, it's important to watch for warning signs.

Women who struggle with these disorders tend to have a distorted sense of body image, low self-esteem and unresolved interpersonal conflicts that may contribute to an unhealthy preoccupation with food and weight. They may also become overly obsessed with exercise and burning calories. Some develop rituals around eating (e.g., avoiding certain foods, eating unusually small portions) or perhaps choose not to eat in front of people.

These women are also more likely to suffer with other mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and even substance abuse. Eating disorders tend to run in families, so if you or one of your other children has had issues with body image or food, pay attention to the signs.

What Is Anorexia?

Women with anorexia will starve themselves in an effort to lose weight, despite the fact that they are underweight. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, symptoms to watch for include:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age and activity level
  • Intense fear of weight gain or being "fat"
  • Feeling "fat" or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

What Is Bulimia?
Bulimia is characterized by binge eating followed by purging either by making yourself throw up, abusing laxatives or over-exercising. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, symptoms to watch for include:

  • Repeated episodes of bingeing and purging
  • Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
  • Purging after a binge, typically by self-induced vomiting; abuse of laxatives, diet pills and/or diuretics; excessive exercise; or fasting
  • Frequent dieting
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

If you think your teen has an eating disorder, share your concerns in a way that makes her feel comfortable and supported. It's important that she work with a professional to learn how to replace negative, potentially destructive thoughts and behaviors with healthy ones. Many women with eating disorders are perfectionists. But as you probably know, the sad reality is that being excessively thin doesn't bring the happiness and sense of accomplishment that many women desire.

When to Seek Help
If your teen starts to show signs of an eating disorder, it's important to get professional help. The sooner an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated, the better. Treatment usually includes a combination of regular health checks, psychotherapy, nutritional counseling and, in some cases, medication.

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