Teen anorexia nervosa, often simply called anorexia, is an eating disorder that affects nearly one percent of women during their lifetimes. Anorexia can also affect men, though it does so at a lower rate. Many teens and young adults struggle with this eating disorder. Anorexia is a serious mental health disorder that can lead to death by malnutrition, starvation, or suicide. If you suspect that your teen has anorexia, it is important that you get him or her the help that they need.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatments of this common mental illness.
What Is Teen Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes the individual to slowly starve themselves over time. It is not only a disorder of eating, however; it is also a mental health disorder that causes the person to see themselves as overweight even if they are severely underweight.
The individual with teen anorexia nervosa might seem highly disciplined and dedicated to fitness and health. Over time, however, he or she will restrict calories to the point that they are unable to maintain a healthy weight. They will also often avoid foods that contain fat and sugar in an effort to lose weight. There are physical health concerns that can arise from this disease, ranging from bone loss to heart damage to infertility. The disease is very difficult to treat because there are often several issues at play and because the individual usually does not admit or realize that they have a problem.
Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
It is common for teens and adults with anorexia to feel very strongly that they do not have a problem and are doing nothing unusual in their effort to lose weight and become healthier. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the condition, which might be hidden.
Some of the signs that your child might be struggling with teen anorexia nervosa include:
- Dieting that goes beyond healthy methods of weight loss. For example, someone who is trying to lose weight healthfully will restrict calories and focus on filling their plate with nutrient-dense, filling foods. Someone who is anorexic might place a few lettuce leaves and carrot sticks on his or her plate and consider that a meal.
- Ritualistic behaviors when it comes to food. Many people with anorexia will eat foods in a certain order or create elaborate recipes (which they might eat only a few bites of or might not eat at all). They might cut their food into tiny pieces or chew a certain number of times.
- Rapid weight loss. Someone who is not eating enough calories will often lose weight very quickly. They might go from a healthy weight to being noticeably underweight in a short period of time.
- Hiding weight loss. Once family members and friends start commenting on the individual’s weight loss, the teen might start wearing bulky clothes to hide his or her body.
- Physical changes. As the condition progresses, girls might stop getting their periods. Teens of both sexes can develop lanugo, which is a fine hair that covers their body. They might start losing some of the hair on their head. They also might feel cold all or most of the time, as it is hard to maintain body heat if one is severely underweight.
Risk Factors and Causes
There is no one cause of anorexia or any other eating disorders. Some people are more at risk. Teens who participate in gymnastics, ballet, wrestling, or other sports where a low body weight is desired might be more prone to developing the condition. Girls are more at risk than boys, but you should not assume your teen son is immune from developing anorexia.
Teens who have been abused are more prone to developing eating disorders. One reason is that they might feel a loss of control in their lives and recognize that food is one thing they can control.
There is also some evidence that disordered eating can run in families. Some of this is likely due to modeled behavior and some of it might be due to genetics. If anorexia nervosa runs in your family, your teen might be at a higher risk of developing it.
Treatments for Anorexia Nervosa
Treatment for any eating disorder is multifaceted. First and foremost, the physical issues must be addressed. If the teen has suffered any heart damage or acute symptoms of malnutrition, those must be treated immediately. Many times, this will require hospitalization.
A teen who has struggled with anorexia will need to meet with a nutritionist so they can begin to eat a diet that will allow their body to heal. Someone with anorexia will not be able to go from eating very few calories to eating a typical 1,500 to 2,000 calorie diet overnight. Also, there will likely be vitamin and mineral deficiencies that will need to be addressed. A nutritionist can help with these issues.
Finally, the biggest obstacle in treating teen anorexia nervosa is that it often encompasses more than one mental health issue. Many people with anorexia also have depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, or another mental health condition. These must be treated with intensive therapy in order to treat the anorexia. This disorder can also relapse throughout an individual’s lifetime, so it is vital to have a good support system in place during and beyond the initial recovery period.
If you are concerned that your child might have teen anorexia nervosa or another eating disorder, take him or her to their primary care doctor. That medical professional can assess him or her for an eating disorder and refer you to the proper specialists. Your teen might need to stay in an inpatient facility for some period of time to boost his or her odds of making a complete recovery. Catching the illness as soon as possible and seeking prompt treatment can make it more likely that your teen will go on to lead a fulfilling life without being hindered by anorexia.