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Teen Eating Disorders

As a parent, instilling self confidence in your child can be an uphill battle, especially in today's media-driven age. With a plethora of gorgeous photoshopped men and women on TV, in magazines, and on social media sending unhealthy messages about weight and beauty, growing up has never been more challenging.

From Victoria's Secret Angels to Instagram models, the pressure to maintain a slim, flawless figure is a crushing reality for millions of teens across the country. For those who aren't naturally slender or brimming with self-esteem, facing an imperfect self can be emotionally devastating. Unfortunately, this can often lead to extreme measures in teens who are unhappy with the reflection they see in the mirror, leading to crash diets, obsessive calorie restriction, and more.

In these efforts to control diet and cope with a persistent desire for perfection, many preteens and teens fall victim to the clutches of eating disorders. What starts as small portions or binging can soon become a terrifying disease, putting overall health and well-being at serious risk over a simple desire to be thin and attractive.

Watching these symptoms in your child can be deeply upsetting, but the emotional pain of dealing with disordered eating is only the tip of the iceberg. If your teen shows signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, the time to seek help is now. 

Eating Disorders - Scale

What Are Eating Disorders?

The term eating disorder refers to any psychological condition that affects dietary habits in an abnormal or disturbed way. While most common in women – approximately twice as many women as men suffer from eating disorders – the drive to use food as a control measure can happen to anyone.

While eating disorders come in many forms, the three most frequent include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

An increasingly common eating disorder that affects approximately 1% the female population and an estimated 8 million individuals in the United States, anorexia nervosa is a serious condition that relies on unhealthy eating habits to force weight loss.

In general, individuals with anorexia have a distorted body image that leads them to take significant action to reduce body weight far below normal or healthy levels. Most patients restrict calories to minimize or eliminate intake, while others may eat typical amounts and purge – vomit or otherwise eliminate – food consumed.

In order to receive a diagnosis of anorexia, patients must meet the following criteria as outlined in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V):

  • Restriction of energy intake in a way that causes inappropriately low body weight for an individual's age, sex, height, and physical health
  • An intense fear of gaining weight or being overweight
  • An inability to accurately assess weight, including denial related to the seriousness of critically low body weight

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves a cycle of binge eating followed by purging behaviors. At any given time, an estimated 1% of women and .1% of men suffer from bulimia.

Unlike anorexia, which requires increased restraint over diet, those who suffer from bulimia are often unable to properly reconcile food intake with a deep desire to lose weight. Many have poor self-esteem related to body image, and feel as though binging and purging is the only way address physical appearance.

The DSM-V criteria for bulimia include:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating, which can be defined as eating an abnormally large portion of food within a two hour window or an inability to control food intake
  • Recurrent compensatory behavior (purging) to prevent against weight gain, including vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, fasting, or prolonged exercise
  • A combination of binging and purging that takes place at least once a week for a minimum of three months
  • Undue influence of weight and appearance on self-perception

Binge Eating Disorder

Eating Disorders - Mirror

Binge eating disorder (BED) is categorized by continued periods of out of control food consumption accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, or distress. While similar to bulimia in some ways, those suffering from BED do not generally purge food. BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men over the course of life – a rate over three times higher than anorexia and bulimia combined.

To receive a diagnosis of BED, patients must show symptoms that include:

  • Recurrent episodes of binging associated with three or more of the following:
    • Eating far more rapidly than normal
    • Eating past the point of fullness
    • Eating large amounts when not physically hungry
    • Eating alone out of embarrassment
    • Disgust or guilt during or after eating
  • Noticeable distress during and after binge eating
  • Occurrence at least once a week for a minimum of three months
  • Binge eating that is unaccompanied by purging

Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders have a strong presence among teenagers due to self-esteem and public perceptions of ideal body type. While teens have different triggers that can lead to altered eating habits, some circumstances can increase the likelihood of eating disorder development

Trauma: Teens who have been subject to traumatic situations like the death of a loved one, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or familial neglect may use eating as a way to exert control over a situation, leading to an eating disorder.

Media Influences: The media is a powerful tool, especially for developing young minds. Teens who feel as though they need to look like celebrities to impress their peers and romantic interests often fall into patterns of disordered eating in order to lose weight.

Peer Pressure: Friend groups in middle school and high school can be toxic, especially among young women. In an effort to be popular, teens may sensationalize a thin figure that intentionally or unintentionally pressures those in their social circles to lose weight.

Bullying: Teens who are picked on or bullied due to weight may begin to restrict eating or purge after eating in order to lose weight and stop the taunts of tormentors

Perfectionism: Some teens, like people of all ages, feel a pull to be perfect. Weight and appearance can be tied into self-worth for perfectionists, leading to an association between perfection and a thin figure.

How to Recognize Eating Disorders

Eating Disorder - BathroomFor parents of impressionable teenagers, it can often be hard to face the signs of an eating disorder. However, paying attention to even the smallest signals can be the difference between early diagnosis and prolonged suffering without assistance. Many parents believe that extreme weight loss is the first and most important indication of an eating disorder, but this is often not the case. Teens suffering from bulimia often do not lose weight quickly, if at all, and those with BED may actually gain weight.

While specific symptoms will vary from one disorder to the next, parents should be aware of common side effects of anorexia, bulimia, and BED, including:

  • Constant dieting and a fixation on the components in meals
  • Hiding of food or food wrappers
  • Eating in secret, or sneaking food to the trash instead of eating it
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Purchase and use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Excessive eating
  • Hours spent exercising
  • Disappearing to the bathroom after a meal
  • Use of prescription stimulants like Adderall or illicit substances like cocaine to eliminate appetite
  • Emotional withdraw from family and friends, especially in situations that involve food

In addition to behavioral indicators, eating disorders often have physical signs that go beyond losing weight. For example, many eating disorder patients will display signs like:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Irregularities of the menstrual period
  • Fine, light hair growing on the face and other areas of the body
  • Emaciation
  • Dehydration

The Dangers of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be extremely dangerous conditions that pose serious and often permanent risks to overall health. Unfortunately, these threats are often unknown to teens and their parents before it's too late, creating critical circumstances that can lead to organ failure and death.


Reducing calories isn't just a convenient way to lose weight. In reality, it can put your health at great risk. Continued lack of proper energy to the body can cause many significant issues, including:

  • Damage to the heart and brain
  • A shift into "slow gear," including cessation of periods, reduction in pulse, and lower heart rate
  • Reduced thyroid function
  • Anemia, swollen joints, and reduced muscle mass

While seemingly inconsequential at first, prolonged stress on the body over time can cause death. Tragically, overall mortality rate for anorexia is around 4%.


The binge eating and purging associated with bulimia can cause many long-term effects to the body, including:

  • Damage to the stomach, including a possibility for rupture
  • Loss of potassium that can increase risk of heart failure
  • Tooth decay and gum disease from vomiting
  • Esophageal inflammation

Mortality rates for bulimia of 3.9% are lower than anorexia, but not significantly.


Binge eating disorder is less dangerous than bulimia and anorexia, but can still lead to many health issues. Since binge eating can cause weight gain, many consequences of BED are related to obesity, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Heart disease

Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Disorders

Eating Disorders - AppleEating disorders are often linked to other psychological conditions, like anxiety, depression, self-injury, OCD, and PTSD, creating a complex web to untangle over the course of treatment. Some of these conditions may be related to the onset of an eating disorder, while others can occur throughout the process of suffering with disordered eating.

Substance abuse is one of the most common co-occurring disorders, affecting nearly 50% of those with eating disorders. A rate five times greater than the general population, teens with eating disorders are far more likely to develop addiction troubles.

Substance abuse can start in one of two ways. Some teens begin to use drugs as a way to cope with the stress and pressure of managing eating, while others utilize drugs to attempt to control eating and reduce appetite. No matter the cause, with such a high incidence of abuse, teens with eating disorders are at a high risk for ongoing drug problems, even after treatment for an eating disorder.

Treatments for Eating Disorders

Due to the serious physical effects of eating disorders, professional treatment is highly recommended.

Similar to drug abuse, eating disorder treatment often takes place in an inpatient facility. In order to see legitimate results, effective therapy combines psychotherapy or counseling with attention to medical and nutritional needs, addressing root causes as well as symptoms. Care should confront all factors related to the onset and continuation of a disorder, including psychological, cultural, biological, and interpersonal causes. An inpatient facility can provide the oversight necessary to facilitate healthy eating habits while offering nutritional support and professional feedback in an atmosphere conducive to recovery.

Moving Forward

If your teen has fallen into a deadly cycle of drug addiction in relation to an eating disorder, help is here. Teen Treatment Center is prepared to help your teen find a safe, secure way to recover with a focus on overcoming low self-esteem while teaching healthy coping skills for the future. While Teen Treatment Center is a primary substance abuse focused residential treatment center, not a true eating disorder treatment facility, we are prepared to provide care for a wide range of co-occurring disorders, helping teens who enter our center to find a healthy way to move forward.

Addressing psychological and addiction disorders in your teen isn't easy, but the right resources can make all the difference. Contact Teen Treatment Center today to get started on the road to a brighter tomorrow (844)319-5239.

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