Recognizing the Symptoms of Eating Disorders Among Teens

During a time in their lives when teens should be enjoying high school, their friends and their lives, an increasing number are living with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, according to Sierra Farmer, MSW, LISW-S, with Harbor Behavioral Health and ProMedica.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, eating disorders often have their genesis in the early years. In fact, 40-50 percent of girls ages 6-12 report concerns about their weight,” Farmer says. “Among adolescents, this jumps to 60-80 percent. In fact, anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness among girls between the ages of 15-19 years of age and has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.”

40-50% of girls ages 6-12 report concerns about their weight… among adolescents, it jumps to 60-80%.

Although eating disorders are most commonly associated with women, Farmer notes 5-10 percent of those diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are men.

“Eating disorders are mental health diagnoses, which can be triggered by biological and sociocultural issues,” Farmer says. “Research shows there’s more peer pressure related to appearance that’s targeted to females. Concerns about physical appearance and weight can have effects on teens’ self-esteem and can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression along with eating disorder behaviors.”

Recognizing the Signs

Farmer stresses parents or guardians who notice the following in their child should solicit the opinion of a professional:

  • Eating in secret
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Calorie counting
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Thinning hair
  • Fear of becoming fat
  • Binge eating
  • Purging
  • Food phobias or avoidance
  • Isolating after eating
  • Trips to the restroom after eating
  • Denial of being hungry

There are challenges associated with getting those with eating disorders the help they need. Farmer explains, “Follow-through with treatment can be problematic because of the ego-syntonic piece, which means people may want to hold on to symptoms of thinness, dieting and perfectionism, since they are socially desirable traits. As a result, symptoms are often hidden, minimized or normalized. Limited family resources, along with limited knowledge and awareness of eating disorders, can also hamper treatment.”

Farmer emphasizes that parents, teachers and other adults should become familiar with the symptoms of eating disorders and educate themselves on the resources available. She recommends that parents should have an open conversation with their children about concerns, including those related to eating disorders. “Just having open lines of communication with children at all times is a good idea.”

If parents feel they need to consult a professional, Farmer says for a better chance at a positive outcome, it’s important they have experience treating eating disorders.

Learn more about behavioral health services available through ProMedica.