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Eating Disorders in Teens

Teen eating disorders can take a devastating toll on adolescents — especially adolescent females. To help protect your adolescent, understand the possible causes of teen eating disorders and know how to talk to your adolescent about healthy eating habits.

Why adolescents develop eating disorders—

Adolescents develop eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — for many reasons. For example:

• Family stress. Problems at home, including perceived high parental expectations for achievement and appearance, can play a role in the development of teen eating disorders.
• Favorite activities. Participation in sports and activities that value leanness — such as wrestling, running and ballet — sometimes contribute to teen eating disorders.
• Low self-esteem. Adolescents who have low self-esteem may use their eating habits or weight loss to achieve a sense of stability or control.
• Personal factors. Some adolescents may be more likely to develop eating disorders due to personality traits or genetics. Eating disorders can run in families.
• Societal pressure. Modern Western culture tends to place a premium on being physically attractive and having a perfect body. Even with a normal body weight, adolescents can easily develop the perception that they're fat. This can trigger an obsession with losing weight, dieting and being thin, especially for adolescent females.

Consequences of teen eating disorders—

Teen eating disorders can cause serious and even life-threatening health problems, including:

• Delayed growth and hair and bone loss
• Depression, which may spiral to suicidal thoughts or behavior
• Digestive problems, kidney damage and tooth decay
• Heart disease, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, anemia and type 2 diabetes
• Seizures, heart palpitations and, for females, absence of menstruation (amenorrhea)

Talking about teen eating disorders—

Talking to your adolescent about eating disorders may not be easy. Still, it's an important topic. When you discuss teen eating disorders, you might:

• Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies, Web sites and magazines may send your adolescent the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your adolescent to talk about and question what he or she has seen or heard — especially from Web sites or other sources that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than an eating disorder (commonly called "pro-ana" sites).

• Discuss the dangers of dieting, obsessing about food and emotional eating. Explain that dieting can compromise your adolescent's nutrition, growth and health. Remind your adolescent that eating or controlling his or her diet isn't a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage your adolescent to talk to family, friends or a counselor about problems he or she may be facing.

• Encourage a healthy body image. Talk to your adolescent about his or her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Your acceptance and respect can help your adolescent build self-esteem and resilience. Encourage family and friends to refrain from using hurtful nicknames and joking about people who are overweight or have a large body frame.

• Encourage healthy eating habits. Talk to your adolescent about how diet can affect his or her health, appearance and energy level. Encourage your adolescent to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to avoid skipping meals. Make healthy eating easy for your adolescent by eating together as a family.

Other preventive strategies—

In addition to talking to your adolescent, consider other strategies to prevent teen eating disorders:

• Set a good example. If you're constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you may have a hard time encouraging your adolescent to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with his or her appearance. Set a good example by eating healthy foods and taking pride in your body.

• Team up with your adolescent's doctor. Your adolescent's doctor can help identify early indicators of an eating disorder and prevent the development of full-blown illness. For instance, the doctor can ask your adolescent questions about eating habits and satisfaction with his or her appearance during routine medical appointments. These visits should include checks of body mass index and weight percentiles, which can alert you and your adolescent's doctor to any significant changes.

Recognizing the warning signs of adolescent eating disorders—

Adolescents who have eating disorders can become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else. Keep an eye out for these red flags:

• Anxiety at mealtimes, a desire to eat alone or unreasonable food restrictions
• Binge eating, fasting or following fad diets
• Excessive exercising or moodiness
• Fatigue, depression, complaints of an irregular heartbeat or abdominal pain, or, for females, interruptions in menstruation
• Preoccupation with preparing food for others and counting calories
• Self-induced vomiting or frequent, long bathroom visits during or just after meals
• Unexplained disappearances of large quantities of food from the house
• Unnatural concern about body weight, frequent weighing or dramatic weight fluctuations
• Using laxatives, diet pills or diuretics to lose weight
• Wearing baggy clothes to hide thinness

Seeking help for adolescent eating disorders—

If you suspect that your adolescent has an eating disorder, talk to him or her. Encourage your adolescent to open up about his or her problems and concerns. In addition, schedule a medical checkup for your adolescent. Your adolescent's doctor can talk to your adolescent about his or her eating habits, exercise routine and body image, and may do tests to detect any possible complications. Depending on the severity of the eating disorder, treatment may involve individual or family counseling, nutrition education, medication and — if necessary — hospitalization. Remember, early diagnosis and treatment can help speed recovery.

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