Teenage girl looking out the window

Your child or teen seems to be eating less, picking over the food you serve. If you’re worried he or she has an eating disorder, you may have reason to be concerned. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, an estimated 20 million American women and 10 million American men will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

These are serious problems that require treatment. But how can you tell if someone has a true eating disorder or is just a picky eater?

It’s important to see a medical or mental health provider to diagnose an eating disorder. But there are a few signs and symptoms to be mindful of if you believe your child may have an issue.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

“Eating disorder” is a general term for persistent, abnormal eating habits and behaviors that negatively affect your life and overall health. The most common of these disorders are binge eating disorderanorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.

These medical conditions differ from more everyday forms of disordered eating, such as crash dieting or stress-eating.

Eating disorders often develop in the teen and young adult years. They can have a dramatic effect on the heart, digestive system, bones, mouth, and more.

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Anorexia Nervosa Warning Signs

This eating disorder is characterized by abnormally low body weight, a fixation on body shape and size, and restrictive eating. Anorexia can be life-threatening. Look for other eating disorder risk factors of anorexia such as:

  • Severe fear of gaining weight.
  • Distorted perception of body weight or shape.
  • Extreme limiting of calories.
  • Excessive exercise.
  • Use of laxatives or diet aids.
  • Vomiting after meals.

Warning Signs for Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is a condition that involves episodes of binging and purging. Those who suffer from this disorder may eat an abnormally large amount of food during a short period of time and then purge it by vomiting, extreme exercising, or taking laxatives or diuretics. Bulimia nervosa also can be life-threatening. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling a loss of control over eating.
  • Restricted eating during the day.
  • Ridding yourself of calories in unhealthy ways, including vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative use.
  • Preoccupation with one’s weight and body shape.

Warning Signs of Binge Eating Disorder

People suffering from binge eating disorder go through recurring episodes of overeating. often consuming large quantities of food over a short period of time. During an episode of binge eating, they feel a sense of loss of control over eating, as well as feelings of shame or distress. Other symptoms may include:

  • Eating too quickly.
  • Eating more food than intended.
  • Eating when no longer hungry or when uncomfortably full.
  • Feelings of guilt, disgust, or shame.
  • Eating alone to hide what or how much was eaten.

Seeking Treatment for Eating Disorders

If you believe you or a family member may suffer from an eating disorder or unhealthy eating habits, schedule an appointment with your doctor or the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders to get an evaluation.

The UPMC Center for Eating Disorders provides comprehensive eating disorder treatment for both children and adults. It is one of the nation’s few eating disorder treatment programs affiliated with a major academic medical center.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact the UPMC Center for Eating Disorders at 412-246-6390.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.