When evaluating the potential teen eating disorder treatment options available, it is necessary to first define the various types of eating disorders. An eating disorder is a broad term that refers to any mental illness specifically related to food. The three most common eating disorders are: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-Eating Disorder.
One of the challenges regarding eating disorders is they can be difficult to recognize and/or diagnose, especially if a person is intentionally trying to hide their eating, which is a common problem. Furthermore, what may count as a symptom of an eating disorder may not always be one, depending on intent and the person’s health. Eating a lot of food does not equate to an eating disorder and appearing skinny does not imply anorexia. Some teens eat a lot yet remain thin, and vice versa. Genes, age, and other factors such as hormone balance play a role in a person’s weight, so it is important to diagnose an eating disorder based on careful observation of behavior rather than appearance.
Beyond the specific symptoms listed above related to each specific eating disorder, there are several symptoms that are commonly present in teens with eating disorders. These symptoms include:
Teen Anorexia Nervosa - This disorder is characterized by a person going to extreme lengths to lose weight, making efforts to eat as little as possible or nothing at all. A person with anorexia has a distorted image of their own body, often insisting they’re much heavier than they actually are. A person with Anorexia is obsessed with maintaining and controlling their weight and will go to great lengths to do so but will also often deny the seriousness of their condition, insisting that they just want to be healthy or stay in shape. In severe cases, a person can be so insistent that their distorted image is accurate, that their insistence causes them to lose weight to the point of it becoming life-threatening.
Teen Bulimia Nervosa - This disorder is also characterized by an obsession of body appearance and controlling weight. A person with bulimia tries to maintain body weight by cycles of binging (eating an excessive amount of junk food) followed by purging (self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, enemas, or other means to rid the stomach of food). During the binge period of the cycle, a person cannot stop eating, even after the stomach is full. Following the binge, a person often feels guilt and embarrassment over the calories consumed during the binge, and therefore has the urge to rid themselves of everything they ate by any means necessary, which can cause them to behave injuriously. On top of cycles of binging and fasting, bulimia can include excessive exercise. Often, a person with bulimia will deny any seriousness of their condition but will nonetheless eat and binge in secret.
Binge Eating Disorder - A clinical syndrome characterized by a person regularly eating a large amount of food in a quick amount of time, with no control of when to stop, as well as eating without regard to hunger or need for food. A person often eats to address emotional pain, stress, or as a means of escapism through pleasure. A person with binge eating disorder becomes obsessed with food and eating, regardless of feelings of hunger. Once they’ve eaten, they often experience extreme feelings of embarrassment or guilt because of what they ate. This produces a cycling effect between the person feeling some slight relief from binging, followed by shame, which urges them to eat more to improve their mood.
Although misconceptions regarding food and exercise are common, and both sports medicine and nutrition are complex fields of study not easily related to the public, eating disorders are separate from general unhealthy eating or exercise habits in that they are accompanied by a destructive cycle, feelings of deep shame, and a greater risk of injurious and unhealthy behavior such as purging and secret eating.
The causes for eating disorders are complex, often rooted in other mental disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, anxiety, and depression. There is some evidence that hormone imbalance may contribute to the development of an eating disorder, but most of the time, eating disorders develop due to:
teens in America have an eating disorder
of eating disorder sufferers do not seek treatment due to feelings of guilt, shame, or lack of access
of teen eating disorder patients improve with intervention and regular treatment
Medical Care and Nutrition
Because eating disorders can be severe mental disorders that have significant effects on the mind and body, teen eating disorder treatment must address both the mental and physical aspects of the disorder.
Teen eating disorder treatment needs to first address a person’s physical condition by helping them return to healthy eating habits and practices, regardless of what their comforts and urges are. Since this can be a difficult transition for a person with an eating disorder, this is often most successfully carried out in a therapeutic setting where the person can be closely monitored and guided through the process. Depending on the specific eating disorder, a person will be monitored in different ways, which are geared toward their current misconceptions and unhealthy eating habits.
Some select medication can help deal with mood-related disorders or symptoms that were caused by or were a cause of the eating disorder. Antidepressants can, in some cases, help reduce low mood and help therapy combat self-harm and negative thinking, especially the kind that encourages feelings of shame and the need to purge. Medication is not always necessary, and it is best to treat an eating disorder without meds, due to the possibility of unwanted side effects further complicating treatment.
In addition to diet, therapy also addresses any current habits or practices related to exercise and helps modify them to be healthy. These foundational steps are crucial to a person’s physical well-being and can then help lay the groundwork for a person to address the underlying causes and beliefs related to their eating disorder.
Therapy also addresses the underlying issues that cause the person to have such a distorted and unmanageable relationship to food, such as feelings of inadequacy, shame, lack of self-worth, anxiety, and/or stress surrounding a need for control. Though the misconceptions and beliefs that a person has in relation to their eating disorder can be deeply rooted, talk therapy can help them understand why their behavior is dangerous, and how it can be changed.
Treating an eating disorder begins with medical care and a carefully laid-out plan to tackle a teen’s eating habits and misconceptions, helping them feel healthy, learn what it means to eat well, and eliminate the feelings and causes of binging, purging, and other eating disorder symptoms.
Because of that, a dedicated treatment facility is a good first step for teens struggling with eating disorders. They need help, and a treatment facility like Paradigm has the medical staff and monitoring equipment necessary to help a teen go through the hardest part of treatment.
I developed an eating disorder that led to me getting checked in to Paradigm Malibu. I was being bullied at school by other girls because of my weight. The biggest thing that Paradigm Malibu helped me with was creating a strategy for boosting my self-confidence and changing my mindset. I no longer look at myself and see someone overweight. Now I look in the mirror and I see someone healthy, strong, and confident.
– Melinda H
What if other people think I have an eating disorder, but I don’t?
It’s clear that there’s a certain bias involved when viewing your own behavior critically, but there’s also the real worry of being accused of having an eating disorder without having one. Concerns from friends and family can be valid and should be taken seriously, but don’t let anyone outside of a medical professional diagnose you. If your friends and family worry you have an eating disorder, then going to a doctor or a therapist can help put their worries to rest, but it could also help you come to terms with the fact that your behavior may be unhealthy.
If your life is consumed by thoughts of food and dieting, and if you exhibit some of the symptoms listed above, you should try to be open to the idea that something more is going on.
What if it’s something I can control?
You may feel this way now, but eating disorders are not just a matter of surviving minor discomforts for a better mirror image – they can be life-threatening, debilitating, and cause serious harm to you. It may start out with healthy intentions, but can quickly spiral out of control long before you realize it has. The longer this takes, the harder it is to reverse the damage.
It’s also important to understand that if your reason for not getting teen eating disorder treatment is the fear of someone else making decisions and having control over what you look like, this isn’t the goal of therapy. The goal of therapy is to help you be healthy, first and foremost.