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Understanding Eating Disorders in Teens

What Causes Eating Disorders in Teens?

There is no one cause of an eating disorder. Experts link eating disorders to a combination of factors, such as family relationships, psychological problems, and genetics. The teen may have low self-esteem and be preoccupied with having a thin body.

Sometimes, being part of a sport such as ballet, gymnastics, or running, where being lean is encouraged, is associated with eating disorders in teens. In one study, researchers linked anorexia with an obsession with perfectionism -- concern over mistakes, high personal standards, and parental expectations and criticism.

What Are Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Teens?

Symptoms of eating disorders may include the following:

  • A distorted body image
  • Skipping most meals
  • Unusual eating habits (such as eating thousands of calories at one meal or skipping meals)
  • Frequent weighing
  • Extreme weight change
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Skin rash or dry skin
  • Dental cavities
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Loss of hair or nail quality
  • Hyperactivity and high interest in exercise

Teens with eating disorders are often in denial that anything is wrong. They may be moody, anxious, depressed. They may withdraw from friends, and become overly sensitive to criticism. The problem arises when parents are not aware of these symptoms because the teen keeps them hidden -- just like the trauma, insecurities, depression, or low self-esteem that may help trigger the disorder.

How Are Eating Disorders in Teens Treated?

Although there is no easy treatment for eating disorders, they are treatable.

A combination of treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication, can be used to help teens overcome bulimia. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps by identifying and replacing inaccurate thoughts to help change behavior and emotional state.

Anorexia treatment usually involves nutritional feeding, medical monitoring, and psychological treatment.

Can Eating Disorders Hurt my Health?

If left untreated, eating disorders can lead to serious illness and even death.

Along with the lower body weight, girls with anorexia nervosa can lose their menstrual periods (amenorrhea). The loss of periods is associated with osteopenia, early bone loss that can lead to painful fractures.

Eating disorders are also linked to other serious health problems, such as kidney disease and heart disease. Each of these health problems requires specific tests and treatment.

When Should I Call a Doctor About Eating Disorders?

If you think you have an eating disorder, talk to your doctor. The sooner you get medical and psychological treatment, the faster you will be on your way to recovery.

If you suspect a family member or friend has an eating disorder, talk with him or her about the problem.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood, MD on March 17, 2013
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