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What Parents Need to Know About Teen Eating Disorders

Teen Eating Disorders | Paradigm Malibu

Teen eating disorders are more than just a phase. Although it’s easy to believe that your teen is now focused on their body more than ever because they want to impress their friends, the truth is that if you see repetitive eating behaviors in your teen, it’s worth getting checked out.


Problems with Eating and Weight can be Easily Missed


One problem that contributes to teen eating disorders is the fact that the entire American culture is consumed with weight loss. Quick weight loss pills, trendy diet plans, and exercise machines are constantly on the market. Women and men are bombarded with images of what they are supposed to look like, while undermining self-esteem and self-confidence. Being surrounded by messages of weight loss and ideal body images can make it difficult to notice that a teen is becoming obsessed with weight loss. It might simply appear to be part of what teens do, or part of what happens when a girl is beginning to become a woman, or a boy is starting to become a man.


However, this is not the case at all. When a teen begins to obsess over their body to the point where their eating habits change or they begin to contemplate surgery to look differently, then it’s time to consider seeking professional assistance. Or if a teen has dramatically lost or gained weight, then it’s another indicator that seeking help may be necessary.

Types of Teen Eating Disorders to Watch Out For


You could say that there are two major types of teen eating disorders. One in which a teen is attempting to control their food intake, such as in the case of Anorexia Nervosa. And the other is when a teen has lost the control of food intake, such as in the case of binge eating and Bulimia Nervosa. In many cases, eating disorders are really not about food at all. Often, it’s about self-image, self-esteem, and personal power.


If you’re teen struggles with low self-esteem, perfectionism, self-image, and confidence as well as displays unusual eating behaviors, then he or she might have an eating disorder. Here are the major types of illnesses that a teen might struggle with:


Anorexia Nervosa includes a refusal to maintain a body weight that is considered within a normal range for age and height. A teen might excessively control their food intake by dieting, low food intake, or fasting. A teen with this disorder might also exhibit an intense fear of gaining weight or being fat, even though they are underweight. Some signs of Anorexia Nervosa include:

  • Signs of restricted eating – dieting, low food intake, or fasting.
  • Odd food ritual – cutting food into pieces, counting bites.
  • Intense fear of becoming fat, regardless of an already low weight
  • Fear of food and certain situations where food is present.
  • Rigid exercise schedule
  • Dressing in layers to hide weight loss.
  • Perfectionist attitude
    • Insecurities about her capabilities despite actual performance
    • Feelings of self-worth are determined by what is or is not eaten.
    • Withdrawal from people.
    • Self-acceptance comes from external sources.


Bulimia Nervosa typically includes episodes of binge eating as well as behavior that attempts to compensate for the overeating such as self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, frequent fasting, or excessive exercise. There are two types of Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Purging Type – the regular use of purging or vomiting as a way to compensate for the binge eating.
  • Non-Purging Type – the regular use of other forms of compensatory behavior.


If you’re concerned about the eating behaviors in your teen, here are some signs of Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Binging
  • Use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics to eliminate food in the body
  • Large weight fluctuations
  • Mood swings
  • Excessive exercise despite fatigue, illness, or injury
  • Unusual swelling in the cheeks or jaw area
  • Calluses on the back of the hands from self-induced vomiting
  • Changing schedules and routines to make time for binge and purge sessions
  • Poor dental health


Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are serious psychological as well as medical illnesses. They are often treated with a psychologist as well as a physician to monitor physical health during treatment. As mentioned above, eating disorders are illnesses that have roots in psychological illness but the lack of or excessive intake of food lead to medical consequences.  It’s important for parents and caregivers to get the help a teen needs before it turns to Stage Four. In other words, before the illness gets serious, there are many steps that parents, families, and teens can take to prevent the illness before it begins.


A Teen Cannot Simply “Get Over” an Eating Disorder


Having an eating disorder doesn’t mean that eating healthy is going to fix it. Teen eating disorders aren’t just a phase that adolescents go through. Although it’s true that adolescents often struggle with eating disorders because this stage of life tends to have an emphasis on social interaction, looks, and acceptance by peers. However, once an eating disorder has taken hold, just like any illnesses, it needs to be treated by mental health and medical professionals.


When a teen is being treated for an eating disorder, treatment might include:

  • Physician – to monitor the medical consequences that come with the illness
  • Psychologist – to treat the psychological aspect of the disorder
  • Nutritionist – to help a teen build a healthier relationship with food and eating
  • Residential Facility – to focus on treatment and get away from familiar triggers
  • Support Groups – to find companionship in others who are experiencing the same illness


Both Male and Female Teens Suffer from Eating Disorders


It’s common for female teens to be the subject of articles and conversations about eating disorders. However, male teens can experience eating disorders as well. In fact, both males and females experience the pressure to look a certain way, which contributes to the development of an eating disorder.


The following are descriptions of research studies pointing to the experience of teen eating disorders in males:

  • One study that surveyed 1,383 adolescents revealed that male teens experienced eating disorders in 2% at 14 years, 2.6% at 17 years, and 2.9% at 20 years of age.
  • In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life,
  • A research study conducted on a large university campus surveyed 2,822 students and found that 6% of males had positive screens for an Eating Disorder. The female-to-male ratio was 3-to-1.
  • Other studies reveal that many male teens with an eating disorder tend to also suffer from other psychological illness such as depression, addiction, and anxiety.


The Stress of College Life Can Sometimes Exacerbate the Illness


Frequently, teens and young adults suffer in silence with an eating disorder because the illness is so easily missed by parents and family members. And if a teen does struggle with an eating disorder during adolescence, college life can only make it worse. With late night parties and binge eating, the 24 hour campus cafeteria, pizza parties, and more, the presence of food can overwhelm and trigger the patterns of an eating disorder.  Plus, the stress of exams, getting used to a new lifestyle, and making new friends can also trigger unhealthy eating habits.


Fortunately, there are many college mental health resources that can support a young adult in moving through the challenges of college life as well as possibly getting a diagnosis for an eating disorder.


What Parents Can do to Prevent Teen Eating Disorders


As mentioned above, the best thing that a parent can provide their teen is preventative care. Before finding out that your teen has an eating disorder, work on helping your teen develop a positive body image, strengthen your teen’s self esteem, and talk to your teen about the dangers of eating disorders. Here are a few suggestions for preventative care:

  • Be a positive role model around the home by modeling healthy eating and good care for your body.
  • Avoid focusing on physical appearances for yourself, your teen, and others in the family.
  • Praise your teen’s strengths and abilities, not their looks.
  • Tell your teen you love them, even if you don’t approve of what they’re wearing or hairstyle.
  • Talk to your teen about their thoughts on body image and self esteem.
  • Listen to any concerns your teen has about their body with a nonjudgmental attitude.
  • Talk to your teen about the images in the media and they frequently send the wrong message and undermine self-esteem.
  • Talk to your teen about peer pressure versus having friends that accept each other for who they are.
  • Together read about eating disorders on the Internet so that both of you become more educated on the subject


You might need support in helping a teen overcome challenges of disordered eating, obsessions about their body, or having a poor body image. There are many mental health professionals who specialize in teen eating disorders. Do not hesitate to seek support if you and your family need it.

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