Identifying and Treating Eating Disorders in Teens

Posted by Maryvale on Feb 13, 2024 7:17:33 PM


Eating healthy food and enjoying a nourished, energetic body may seem like simple facts of life. Unfortunately, for many young people, having a straightforward relationship with food is difficult. Our culture puts outsized pressure on physical appearances, and unrealistic beauty standards abound. As a result, adolescents often find themselves navigating the delicate balance between self-acceptance and norms that are completely detached from reality. Unfortunately, many teens resort to eating disorders in an effort to look thinner or comply with other people’s beauty standards. As many as 13% of teens will develop an eating disorder before they reach age 20. 


Why does disordered eating affect teens? While anyone can develop an eating disorder, teens are particularly vulnerable. Adolescence is a challenging, critical period marked by physical, emotional, and social changes. Teens – particularly young women – are eager to step into their identities and to find ways to express their self-worth, making them particularly susceptible to body image issues. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are some of the most common eating disorders that manifest during this vulnerable stage. Here are some key details on each:


Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme food restriction, leading to significant weight loss. Teens with anorexia often have an intense fear of gaining weight and may have a distorted body image. People who have anorexia will resort to dire methods to reduce the amount of food they eat and may continue to talk about feeling fat or seeking diets even when they become very thin.


People with anorexia nervosa are likely to experience a sharp decline in energy and motivation, and women are likely to experience irregular menstrual cycles. Hair loss, dizziness, and severe anxiety are known to accompany anorexia. Because anorexic people limit what they eat, they are also likely to limit how and when they socialize and may choose to miss out on activities and social settings. This antisocial behavior can cause a person’s suffering to spike, leading to severe depression, obsessive behavior, or suicidality.  


Bulimia nervosa involves recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or fasting. A bulimic person may appear enthusiastic or starving at mealtimes. Unlike anorexia, individuals with bulimia may maintain a normal weight. People who have bulimia are prone to dental decay, muscle weakness, and stomach pain. The risks associated with this eating disorder are amplified for children and teens, whose bodies are unable to develop because they are not adequately or consistently nourished properly.


Binge-eating disorder entails consuming large amounts of food in a short time, accompanied by feelings of loss of control. Unlike bulimia, there is no compensatory behavior leading to weight gain. Binge eating is known to have long-term physical effects such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. 


How To Spot Disordered Eating in Teens

Secrecy can cause massive frustration between adults and teens. During adolescence, it is normal for young people to experience hormonal fluctuations, physical and sexual impulses, and new emotional patterns – all of which can feel embarrassing or overwhelming to talk about with parents. 


Eating disorders are an extreme example of how secrecy can turn deadly. At the same time, early detection and prevention are crucial in addressing eating disorders. Parents, educators, and healthcare professionals should be vigilant in recognizing potential signs and symptoms. Here are some signs that a young person may be concealing an eating disorder:

  • They become picky about what they eat or make excuses to skip meals regularly.
  • If your teen is suddenly obsessed with food, calories, and body weight, they may be at risk.
  • They disappear after a meal. Self-induced vomiting is the most common form of bulimia. If your teen makes frequent trips to the bathroom, is retching, or carries the odor of vomit after a meal, they may be suffering from bulimia. 
  • They start wearing baggy clothing. While a teen with an eating disorder might be proud of a thinning body in some environments, they will likely try to hide their changing shape from their parents.
  • You notice that they obsess over their looks. Whether in front of a mirror or in conversation with their friends, constantly talking about their looks or negatively referring to their body shape is a telltale sign that a teen has body image issues.
  • On a physical level, look for rapid weight loss or fluctuation, fatigue and weakness, and irregular menstruation for young women. You might also notice changes in a teen’s appearance, such as thinning hair or the development of fine, peach-fuzzy hair on the body. 

Treatment Approaches for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are fully treatable, and treatment is most effective when it starts early. While treatment cannot undo severe damage to a body’s tissues and organs, it can rebuild a teen’s sense of what is and is not healthy, both physically and mentally. Treating eating disorders requires a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach involving healthcare professionals, mental health experts, and nutritional specialists. In severe cases, medical intervention is necessary to address immediate health concerns. This may involve hospitalization or outpatient medical monitoring. Several different therapeutic options have proven valuable for people with eating disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with eating disorders. Family-based therapy incorporates parents in the treatment process and considers the impact of family dynamics. Peer support through group therapy can be a helpful way to create a safe space for young people to share experiences, gain insights, and build a sense of community. As teens adopt healthy habits, nutritional counseling helps them develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies.


We believe that teens have the capacity for self-love, even when it seems like they are their own worst enemy. If your child needs professional help to overcome an eating disorder, don’t wait – seek support now. Through our Community-Based mental health services, Maryvale can assist you in finding supportive care. 

Topics: eating disorder