What You Should Know About Teenage Eating Disorders

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Eating disorders are serious health conditions that can be both physically and emotionally destructive, particularly for teenagers. Here at Westchester Health Pediatrics, we have a number of teenage patients with eating disorders, and we want to stress to parents that early diagnosis and intervention make a big difference in recovery. Affecting boys as well as girls, eating disorders can escalate into life-threatening conditions and require professional help.

The 2 most common eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia

Rachel Managed, MD, FAAP

Rachel Menaged, MD, FAAP

Anorexia   
Anorexia is basically a form of self-starvation. Teens suffering from anorexia eat very little and are at least 15% below their ideal body weight. They typically have an intense fear of weight gain, are obsessed with their weight, and go to extreme measures to prevent gaining weight.

Bulimia   
Teens with bulimia go through cycles of eating huge amounts of foods followed by purging, either by vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, or by spending abnormal amounts of time doing strenuous physical exercise. Bulimic teens often report feelings of being out of control during their binge-eating episodes.

Many people with eating disorders do not fit into either category, and instead may have some components of either or both disorders.

Many possible causes of eating disorders

As with many mental disorders, no single cause exists for eating disorders. They can result from a combination of many factors, including:

  • The chances of having an eating disorder rise if you have a sibling or parent who suffers or has suffered from the same condition.
  • Psychological issues. Emotional and psychological problems, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, may contribute to an eating disorder.
  • Trauma and family relationships. Teens with eating disorders may also be dealing with issues such as sexual abuse, family conflict, sexual identity, the death of a loved one, or overly-high family expectations.
  • Societal pressure. Popular culture tends to place a premium on being thin. Even with a normal body weight, teens can easily develop the perception that they’re fat. This can trigger an obsession with losing weight and dieting. Images in the media and peer pressure will often reinforce a negative body image, especially in young girls. Be aware that teen boys can also suffer from eating disorders.
  • Activities that emphasize being thin. Participation in activities that value leanness, such as modeling, acting and some athletics (gymnastics, for example), can increase the risk of teen eating disorders.

Symptoms of eating disorders

Teen eating disorders often result from the young person’s self-esteem being overly connected to their body image. If you suspect your teenager may have an eating disorder, here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • A distorted body image
  • Skipping most meals
  • Abnormal eating habits (eating too much, too little or skipping meals altogether)
  • Obsessive weighing
  • Extreme weight change (gaining or losing)
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Skin rash or dry skin
  • Dental cavities
  • Erosion of tooth enamel (caused by excessive vomiting)
  • Loss of hair
  • Poor nail quality
  • Hyperactivity, obsessive interest in exercise
  • Loss of menstruation

If left untreated, eating disorders can lead to serious illness and even death

Along with dangerously low body weight, girls with anorexia or bulimia can lose their menstrual
periods (amenorrhea). This can cause irreversible early bone loss (osteoporosis) that can lead to serious bone fractures. Eating disorders are also linked to other serious health problems, such as kidney and heart disease, as well as extensive cavities and long-term dental problems.

Can eating disorders be treated?

Although there is no quick and easy treatment for eating disorders, yes they are treatable. This can include psychological therapy, nutritional feeding, medical monitoring and medication. Generally, the goals of eating disorder treatment are to restore the person to a healthy weight, treat any psychological problems related to the disorder, and reduce behaviors or thoughts that contribute to the eating disorder. Continuing therapy may be needed to prevent relapse and to treat related psychological problems.

The good news: we’re here to listen…and to help

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we want teenagers to know that we care about them and will do all we can to help them to be healthy and happy. Please come in and talk with us — your teen, you and your teen, or you by yourself — about body image, eating habits, self-esteem, relationships, school, grades…anything. If, together, we decide your teen might have an eating disorder and needs help, we’ll go over all the available options with both of you. Plus, we have an on-staff nutritionist who can help your child make smart, healthy choices about food, calories and nutrition. Most of all, we want to help your teen feel good about herself/himself, now and throughout life.

More information on eating disorders

By Rachel E. Menaged, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball