Eating Disorders & Teens
How anorexia and bulimia affect teens, plus when to seek help for eating disorders.
By: Gregory Germain, MD
Another outward manifestation of stress to fit in and have a “perfect” body comes in the form of eating disorders—anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Eating disorders are complex psychological problems that are closely associated with depression and low self-esteem.
Eating disorders are a relatively uncommon problem. But although fewer than 1% of the female population are affected, as many as 75 percent of girls claim to be unhappy about their weight. (Eating disorders can affect both adolescent boys and girls, although they are much more prevalent among girls.) No doubt, that feeling is fueled by images of super-thin women in the media. More than 90 percent of people with eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25 according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
Anorexia nervosa is marked by an intense fear of being fat and an obsession with staying thin. Anorexics become preoccupied with avoiding food, irrationally believing that they are obese no matter how thin they really are. In essence, an anorexic teen starves herself. She may also exercise excessively and use laxatives or diuretics.
As a parent, it is tempting to just try to force your daughter to eat. But bear in mind: Anorexia is an extreme psychological problem and that imparting more stress on your child could make it worse.
Signs of Anorexia:
- preoccupation with calories and fat
- intense fear of weight gain
- secretiveness about eating
- compulsive or over exercising
- abuse of laxatives or diuretics
- depression or anxiety
- distorted body image
Effects of Anorexia: Anorexia can make girls stop menstruating. They can also experience loss of bone mass and low body temperature; ultimately, anorexia can lead to death.
Bulimia is characterized by eating large quantities of food (binging) and then vomiting (purging) to get rid of it. Like anorexics, bulimics struggle with their weight and body image, although most of them will look like they are “normal” weight. Bulimia may also be accompanied by drug or alcohol abuse.
Signs of Bulimia:
- binging or eating uncontrollably
- strict dieting, fasting or vomiting
- frequent bathroom use, especially after eating
- heartburn, indigestion or sore throat
- preoccupation with body weight
- depression or mood swings
- missing food or hidden stashes of food
- dental changes consistent with frequent vomiting
Effects of Bulimia: Because of the purging, bulimia can result in oral abrasions, dental cavities and loss of tooth enamel. The disorder can cause dehydration, mineral and electrolyte loss, and damage to the bowels, liver and kidneys. Electrolyte imbalance can lead to irregular heartbeat and, in some cases, cardiac arrest.
Dealing with Eating Disorders
You can help your teen avoid an eating disorder by teaching her positive attitudes towards food and weight. Don’t talk about your weight or dieting habits in front of her. Encourage her to eat healthily and engage in physical activity. And if you suspect that your daughter has an eating disorder, gently confront her and seek medical and psychiatric help.