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Teen Health

Understanding Eating Disorders in Teens

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What Are Eating Disorders? continued...

Anorexia nervosa affects as many as one in every 100 females. Teens with anorexia fear gaining weight and are at least 15% below their ideal body weights. They believe the main gauge of self-worth is their body image.

Experts believe many American girls are bulimic and have kept the problem a secret. Bulimia often starts in the late teens and early adulthood. People with bulimia go through cycles of eating enormous amounts of foods followed by purging by vomiting, using laxatives, or diuretics or hours of aerobic exercise.

Warning signs of bulimia include:

  • Extreme preoccupation about being overweight
  • Strict dieting followed by high-calorie eating binges
  • Overeating when distressed
  • Feeling out of control
  • Disappearing after a meal
  • Depressed moods
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Frequent use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Excessive exercising
  • Irregular menstrual cycles

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.

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