You’ve seen your child grow and change throughout his or her life. During the teenage years, your adolescent’s body is changing at a rapid pace. Early in adolescence, girls will develop curves and boys will begin to develop muscles. Young teens of both sexes will often begin to lose “baby fat” as their bodies take on their adult form. You might notice significant weight and body shape changes as the months and years go by. You’ll also notice that your teen will go through periods of being very hungry and periods of eating less. With all of these changes, how can you be sure that these appetite and weight fluctuations aren’t signs of an adolescent eating disorder? Here are some of the facts that you need to know about adolescents, eating disorders, and other mental health issues.
Different Types of Eating Disorders That Affect Teens
Many eating disorders start during the teenage years or the young 20s. There can sometimes be a fine line between typical adolescent eating patterns and disordered eating. Some of the different types of eating disorders that can affect teens include:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Binge-eating disorder
- Orthorexia nervosa
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
Anorexia is a condition that causes an individual to drastically reduce his or her food intake. The adolescent will have a distorted body image, seeing him- or herself as overweight even when dangerously underweight, and might lose weight very quickly. There are often rituals involved; for example, your teen might go to great lengths to painstakingly prepare a meal, then take only a few bites, chewing each mouthful a prescribed number of times.
Bulimia is sometimes called “bingeing and purging.” Typically, the affected person will eat a very large amount of food, often choosing foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories. Then they will purge by vomiting or using laxatives. Some people with bulimia will also exercise excessively in an effort to rid themselves of calories.
Binge-eating disorder consists of bingeing (eating large quantities of food in a short period of time) without vomiting or using laxatives to purge. The person bingeing will often do so in secret and might feel great shame or embarrassment.
Orthorexia can look like (and can begin with) very healthy eating. Teens with the condition will begin to obsessively focus on the healthiness of the food that they’re eating. They might begin by insisting that they are served only plant-based food or only organic foods. This, alone, is not typically a problem (though it might be inconvenient for the rest of the family). As the condition progresses, their behavior can become obsessive to the point that they avoid foods that they think might be causing real or imagined health problems or they might limit themselves to just a handful of foods.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, often abbreviated as ARFID, is sometimes considered by parents to be very picky eating. The individual will have only a handful of foods that they consider acceptable. These foods are chosen based on their brands, shapes, textures, and other factors. The problem with ARFID is not necessarily that the person doesn’t like certain foods but that they are unable to sustain a healthy weight or that they suffer from malnutrition due to the lack of variety in the diet. This condition usually starts in early childhood, but it can last into the teen years or beyond.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
The symptoms of eating disorders in teens depend on the particular adolescent eating disorder present. Also, teens do often change their diets, experimenting with different ways of eating and having larger or smaller appetites at times. The thing to look for is a pattern of eating that is markedly changed from the way your teen usually eats. Eating disorders usually get worse and more pronounced over time. So a teen who is simply dieting to lose a few pounds might begin to eat progressively less and less, losing more and more weight, if they have anorexia.
Some signs to watch for that might indicate disordered eating are:
- Unhealthy changes in weight. If your teen is losing weight past the point of achieving a healthy BMI or gaining a lot of weight, causing them to approach obesity, this might indicate a problem and possibly an eating disorder.
- Obsession with food. Part of many eating disorders is obsessing over food. Your teen might constantly be thinking about what they will eat, when they will eat it, and how they will eat it. Rituals might be a compulsion associated with the obsession.
- Eating a smaller and smaller variety of foods. With ARFID and orthorexia, a teen might begin eating fewer and fewer foods to the point that preparing a meal for them is a huge undertaking.
- Physical problems related to the disorder. Your teen might begin losing hair if they have anorexia or developing tooth decay if they have bulimia. Girls might stop getting their periods.
What to Do If You Suspect an Adolescent Eating Disorder
Talk to your teen if you suspect that they might have an adolescent eating disorder. Keep in mind that your child might deny that there’s a problem; part of this is an effort to keep you from worrying about it and part might be that your teen is in denial and truly believes there is no issue with how they are eating. Other teens might be more open about their struggles.
A visit to your teen’s primary care doctor can help determine whether there’s an eating disorder present or if there is a physical issue that is causing the weight fluctuations or appetite changes. For example, a thyroid disorder or a hormonal imbalance could cause weight loss or weight gain. Eating disorders can also sometimes cause thyroid or hormone disorders. If your teen is diagnosed with an adolescent eating disorder, he or she will be referred to a mental health practitioner specializing in adolescent eating disorders. From there, your teen might receive counseling, medication, or, in severe cases, hospitalization to get past the acute crisis.
Eating disorders are not uncommon among teens and if your teen has one, he or she can recover with hard work and the desire to get better. Be aware of the signs of eating disorders and be sure to talk to your teen and seek a prompt evaluation if you suspect that there’s a problem.