Teens and Eating Disorders: What Are the Warning Signs?

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Eating disorders are psychological problems that require therapeutic intervention. These disorders make normal functioning difficult and can become chronic, life-threatening illnesses requiring hospitalization. Find out the warning signs of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, and consult your doctor immediately if you think your teen might be suffering from an eating disorder.
Teen girl trying on red dress
Anorexia Nervosa
In this disorder, a preoccupation with dieting and thinness leads to excessive weight loss through self-starvation.

One percent of teenage girls in the United States develop anorexia nervosa; up to 10 percent of those who do may die as a result, according to information distributed by the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association.

Young adolescents who participate in sports such as dance or gymnastics where size and weight are important to success are especially prone to anorexia nervosa. (They're often told, “Be thin to win.”) Young girls who entered puberty early, have low self-esteem, or have negative feelings about their bodies are also potentially at risk.

Teen girl eating one small tomato
Warning Signs of Anorexia
  • Losing a significant amount of weight (25 percent of normal body weight) when no diet plan is needed or has been discussed
  • Distorted body image—the teenager feels “fat” even when she's very thin
  • Continuing to diet even once she's thin
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Amenorrhea (losing monthly menstrual periods)
  • Being preoccupied with food, calories, nutrition, and/or cooking
  • Exercising compulsively
  • Bingeing and purging
Close up of person standing on scale
Bulimia Nervosa
This disorder involves frequent episodes of binge eating, almost always followed by purging (through vomiting, starvation, and laxatives) and intense feelings of guilt or shame about food. The bulimic feels out of control and recognizes that the behavior is not normal. Up to five percent of college women in the U.S. are bulimic, and one-third of bulimics have a history of being overweight.
Stressed teen boy with head down on school books
Warning Signs of Bulimia
  • Bingeing or eating uncontrollably, often secretly
  • Purging by strict dieting, fasting, vigorous exercise, vomiting, or abusing laxatives or diuretics in an effort to lose weight
  • Using the bathroom frequently after meals
  • Preoccupation with body weight
  • Depression or mood swings
  • Irregular periods
  • Developing dental problems, swollen cheek glands, or bloating
Depressed teen girl talking to doctor
Talk to Your Doctor
If you suspect your teen (male or female; boys suffer from eating disorders, too) has a problem, talk to your doctor. Don't attempt to correct the problem alone. Eating disorders stem from an underlying problem, and if you focus on food without dealing with the larger issue, you run the risk of making things worse. It's vital that you seek help. Research shows that early recognition and treatment of eating disorders provide the best chance for recovery.