Weight changes and fluctuations in appetite are common among teenagers. You might be shocked at how much your teen eats for a period of time; weeks later, you might find yourself concerned because that same teenager is just picking at his or her dinner. Your teen might go through a period of weight gain just before growing several inches in height. As his or her body changes, you might notice that they’re getting slimmer in some places and rounder in others. Because eating disorders in teens are not uncommon, it’s important that you are aware of the differences between normal weight fluctuations and an eating disorder. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell which is which. Read on to learn more about how to recognize eating disorders in teens.
Everything’s a Secret
A teen struggling with an eating disorder will often keep his or her behavior a secret. They might go to great lengths to disguise their weight and the way they are eating. For example, a teen who is losing weight might wear bulkier clothing to hide the fact that their bones are showing. He or she might wear sweatshirts, hoodies, and cargo pants, even in the heat of the summer. They might be reluctant to wear a bathing suit or other clothing that shows more of their body.
A teen who is bingeing on food will often do so in secret. Rather than eat large amounts of food in the kitchen or other common areas of the home, they might go and hide it in their bedroom or in their car. If you are finding a lot of food wrappers in your teen’s bedroom, this could be a sign that there’s an eating disorder at play. (Of course, if your teen often eats food in his or her room and leaves the wrappers, it might not mean anything at all; look for large quantities of wrappers, not an empty candy wrapper and a chip bag there.)
Obsession Is Involved
One of the signs of eating disorders in teens is obsession about food and exercise.
They might talk about their weight frequently. He or she might talk about how many calories are in a given item, which classmates are thinner or heavier than they are, or what size jeans they were able to fit into. Some teens who have eating disorders take a newfound interest in cooking and will spend hours pouring over recipes and experimenting with foods, only to not eat anything that they eat. Others will spend time cooking and baking, then eat everything they make; it depends on the specific disorder.
Exercise can become another type of obsession. Your teen might exercise for many hours each day. They might read about different types of exercises and spend a lot of time trying them out. They might talk about how many calories different types of exercises burn.
Exercise, nutrition, and cooking are all healthy interests, but when they’re taken to an extreme, that’s when it’s reasonable to investigate whether an eating disorder is present.
Pickiness Becomes Extreme
Has your teen always been a picky eater? Many teens with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, become very picky. It goes beyond not wanting to eat broccoli or disliking pork; your teen might decide seemingly overnight that they no longer eat any carbs, including fruits and vegetables. Or maybe they only eat vegetables and dislike oil, butter, salad dressing, and other common accompaniments.
Some people with eating disorders will also fall into ritualistic eating. This means that they need to eat in a certain way or after following an elaborate ritual. Maybe your teen needs to eat exactly two bites of each item on the plate and chew 30 times. Or perhaps they need to eat foods of a certain color only at each meal. When looking for eating disorders in teens, be alert for strange or new eating rituals.
Body Image Is Inaccurate
A teenager with an eating disorder will usually assess their body inaccurately. A thin teen will often think that he or she is overweight, despite what the scale says. Some of this is due to media portrayals of healthy bodies; a perfectly healthy teenager, particularly a girl, will have some fat stores in her hips, thighs, and breasts. A teen with an eating disorder will often see fat stores where there are none. They might think they’re too short, too tall, too muscular, or not muscular enough.
Physical Signs Are Present
Eating disorders in teens can cause a wide range of serious health issues, from potentially fatal heart failure and kidney problems to dental problems and reproductive issues. Your teenage daughter might stop getting her periods. Teens who are malnourished from an eating disorder might develop a coat of soft hair all over their bodies. The hair on their head might fall out. Dental cavities become more prevalent, particularly in teens with bulimia. A teen who is relying on laxatives might find that they’re depending on them and become constipated without the medication. Your teen might be lethargic, cold all the time, and unable to focus.
Help for Eating Disorders in Teens
If you suspect that your teen is dealing with an eating disorder, it’s vital that you seek help sooner rather than later. Many teens will need to be hospitalized or admitted to a recovery center. In these centers, they will receive counseling, group therapy, nutritional support and, in some cases, medication. Once someone has an eating disorder, they are considered to be recovering for life. Relapses are common and family support is necessary.
Eating disorders in teens does not mean that he or she is weak. It also is not something that can be cured by insisting that they start eating properly. Disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder are serious mental health issues that need to be treated by a mental health professional. Take your teen to the doctor for an evaluation if you suspect disordered eating; it could very well save their life.