Mom and daughter sit on the couch.

If you think your teen has an eating disorder, here's how to help

Adolescent Health, Binge Eating Disorder, Eating Disorder

Written by Dr. Shawn Sorrell, a provider in the UK Adolescent Medicine Clinic

Did you know that 95 percent of those with an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25? In fact, about half of all teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys engage in some sort of unhealthy weight control behavior.

Eating disorders are serious but treatable illnesses that are characterized as a mental illness, but they can have severe medical consequences. The cause of eating disorders is unknown, but we do know that genetic, socio-cultural and psychological factors play a role. 

Because February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month, take some time to recognize the severity of eating disorders and how you can help your teen overcome theirs.

What are the types of eating disorders?

Eating disorders can be divided into seven categories:

1. Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by weight loss or inappropriate weight gain. For example, a child does not gain weight during a time of growth. Patients usually have a distorted body image and restrict calories to lose weight.

2. Bulimia nervosa: Characterized by a cycle of binge eating and compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or exercise, to essentially undo the act of binging.

3. Binge eating disorder: Characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food with a feeling of loss of control during this binge. There is not usually a compensatory mechanism to compensate for the binge.

4. Avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): Characterized by the persistent refusal to eat specific foods or refusal to eat any type of food due to a negative response to certain colors, textures or smell. This disorder is not associated with body image.

5. Pica eating disorder: Characterized by persistently eating non-nutritive substances for a period of at least one month.

6. Rumination disorder: Characterized by repeatedly vomiting and re-eating food for a period of at one month. This is not due to another medical condition.

7. Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED): Characterized by a feeding or eating behavior that causes significant distress or impairment but not does not meet the criteria for any of the other feeding and eating disorders.

8. Unspecified feeding or eating disorder (UFED): Characterized by behaviors that cause impairment of functioning but do not meet other criteria. This term is often used when there is not enough information to make a more thorough diagnosis, but the patient presents concerning signs and symptoms.

What are the warning signs?

Watch out for these red flags in your teen:

  • Loses a dramatic amount of weight.
  • Dresses in layers to hide weight loss.
  • Is preoccupied with weight, food, calories, nutrients or dieting.
  • Refuses to eat certain foods or has a “bad food list” and “good food list.”
  • Develops food rituals (excessive chewing for example) or disruptions in eating patterns.
  • Consistently makes excuses to avoid having meals with others.
  • Withdraws from friends or activities and/or becomes more isolated.

Who can develop an eating disorder?

Western culture has an obsession with dieting, weight, exercise and body image. Everyone regardless of age or gender can be affected by an eating disorder, but in recent years, eating disorders have affected younger children, boys and minority groups more than ever.

During adolescence, teens grow rapidly physically and cognitively, which makes them more likely to develop an eating disorder. Additionally, being surrounded by social media as well as society's weight obsession can make it difficult for teens to form a positive body image.

It is important for parents, caregivers and clinicians to be aware of the spectrum of eating disorders and the different presentations of disordered eating. Someone struggling with an eating disorder may not appear to be emaciated or starving. It's important to know that people of all sizes and weights can be affected by an eating disorder.

    How can I help my teen?

    If you think your teen could have an eating disorder, schedule an appointment with their pediatrician for a physical examination and to discuss concerns. 

    Disordered eating may also represent a coping mechanism or be a part of an underlying psychiatric condition, such as anxiety or depression.

      An eating disorder is a complex psychiatric and medical illness, and it is not a choice. Many caregivers ask, “Why can’t they just eat?” The answer is not easy and requires help from a medical and behavioral health team.

      Remember that parents or caregivers do not cause the eating disorder. You are actually an integral part of the treatment of your teen's eating disorder.

      Recovery is possible with intervention. For more information, visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website.

      Call 859-323-5643 to make an appointment with a clinician at the UK Adolescent Medicine Clinic. Clinicians are available and can be the first step in evaluation and ensuring your child gets the help they need.

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      This content was produced by UK HealthCare Brand Strategy.