Eating disorders are quite common: In the United States, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer with one at some point in their lives, often during adolescence. But eating disorders are just as serious as they are widespread. The types of eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa (not eating enough)
- Bulimia nervosa (periods of overeating followed by purging)
- Binge eating (uncontrolled overeating).
Eating disorders can have lasting effects on a teenager’s emotional and physical health, but they are treatable.
1. Overly concerned with body weight and image
A teenager’s body goes through many physical changes during puberty. In girls, fat redistributes around the breasts, thighs, and hips. Before boys enter their growth spurt, they may experience chubbiness around the midsection. These changes in shape and size are normal, but many teens don’t realize it.
Educate your child about the natural physical transformation that accompanies puberty so they know what to expect.
2. Avoiding meals or obsessing about food
Food plays an integral role in our culture, often taking center stage at celebrations and gatherings with friends and family. If your child is skipping meals or avoiding interactions with friends and family when food is involved, there may be a problem. Be aware of obsessive label reading, counting calories or fat grams, and following fad diets or cleanses. While an interest in food or nutrition is healthy, teens with eating disorders may take it to the extreme.
It’s important to keep in mind that most messages on dieting are aimed at adults, not at adolescents, whose bodies require adequate calories for the high metabolic demands. Teens should eat a balanced diet that includes all food groups.
3. Mood changes
On the most basic level, eating disorders provide an unhealthy mechanism for coping with stress. To some degree, managing food intake can give teens a sense of control over the academic, social, athletic, and career pressures that accompany adolescence. Watch for changes in your child’s mood, including an increase in concerns such as anxiety, depression, isolation and loneliness, and emotional outbursts, as well as a loss of interest in activities that previously brought enjoyment.
You can offer support by helping your teen prioritize his or her activities, encouraging downtime, and emphasizing balance. A therapist or counselor can help teach healthier coping strategies.
Good health depends on regular physical activity. However, it’s possible for teens to take it too far. Some athletes tend to be at higher risk for eating disorders, including those who participate in gymnastics, dance, figure skating, cheerleading, wrestling, and track. You’re right to feel suspicious if your child takes a perfectionist approach to sports, exercises in secret, trains more than necessary, or has unrealistic expectations of exercise. Like self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives, over-exercise is a form of purging, or eliminating calories from the body. To help prevent excessive exercise, encourage balance and true enjoyment of the sport and check with your teen’s coach about his or her training regimen.
Just like any other illness, the earlier you identify an eating disorder, the sooner you can treat it. Prevention starts at home: If you’re concerned that your child is coping with an eating disorder, take a non-judgmental approach. Asking questions about his or her health and habits from a place of curiosity, not blame, will help get the conversation started.
If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, visit the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders or call 412-647-9329 to speak with an expert. You’ll find resources to help you discuss and understand the nature of eating disorders.