For parents, it can be frightening and taxing to discover your child may have an eating disorder. This blog breaks down eating disorders in adolescents, including warning signs, contributing factors, health consequences, and ways to support those affected.
About Eating Disorders
An eating disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by a preoccupation with eating, exercise, and body weight or shape. Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, body shape or weight, sexual orientation, or economic status. There isn’t a single cause to point to or to blame. They are complex illnesses related to a wide variety of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Eating disorders impact over 30 million people in the United States alone.
There are several types of eating disorders. Listed below are the typical warning signs of each:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- An inability to eat enough food to maintain a specific weight
- Low body weight
- Frequent weight checking with an obsessive concern of weight gain
- Distorted body image
- Restriction of food intake or of a specific type of food
- Obsessive calorie counting
- Use of laxatives or diuretics
- Hiding or throwing away food or skipping meals
- Extreme exercise routines
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Recurrent binge eating, or eating an objectively large amount of food in a discrete period of time, followed by purging or fasting
- Distorted body image
- Fear of weight gain
- Feelings of self-loathing, disgust, or guilt after eating
- A sense of a lack of control around food
- Elusive behavior around mealtimes
- Compulsive exercise
- Misuse of laxatives or diuretics
- Inflammation, scarring, or abrasions on the knuckles
- Swollen cheeks or inflammation of the mouth
- Broken blood vessels in the eyes
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Binge eating, or eating an objectively large amount of food in a discrete period of time, one or more times a week
- Feelings of a lack of control around food and eating
- Self-loathing, guilt, or shame after eating
- Eating when not physically hungry
- Eating alone
- Avoiding mealtimes
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
- Eating/feeding disturbances that result in a failure to meet appropriate nutritional needs
- Lack of interest in food
- Food avoidance
- Faltering growth/developmental patterns
- Dependence on nutritional supplements
- Extreme emotional dysregulation and anxiety surrounding mealtimes
- Excessive fears of choking or vomiting
- Chronic abdominal pain
- Neutral or positive body image
- Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)
- Symptoms that fall outside of the definitions of the other eating disorders yet cause significant distress and impair functioning
- Gaining or losing weight
- Preoccupation with weight
- Excessive calorie counting
- Excessive physical activity
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in performance
- Mood changes, depression, or anxiety
- Fatigue or lightheadedness
Children and adolescents can be picky eaters, which may cause alarm for some parents. However, picky eating is not an eating disorder. Picky eating often includes a dislike for a taste or texture of a specific food that could resolve itself over time. In contrast, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses often marked by an obsession with weight or body shape, self-loathing or disgust after eating, food avoidance, or binge eating. Eating disorders need a full team of experts to assist in recovery.
Factors Contributing to the Development of Eating Disorders
With the quarantine of 2020 and 2021, we are witnessing eating disorders more and more in adolescents. With no longer having the resources to go out to a park, a movie, or to spend time with friends, adolescents may feel extremely isolated. Isolation and loneliness can often heighten eating disorder triggers.
With the pandemic, many things moved online and were navigated through social media platforms. There has been more exposure to media, television, and games as a form of distraction or a way to connect with others while keeping physical distance. There have been many celebrities, internet personalities, and media memes that show either over-exercise, at-home hacks, or food recipes for losing weight during the pandemic, or people poking jokes about eating and/or gaining weight during this time.
Even before the pandemic, social media has been a growing part of people’s everyday lives. Along with other forms of media, social media puts a large amount of pressure on people to meet a social and cultural standard of beauty, which can lead to poor body image and disordered eating. The more an individual is exposed to this unrealistic standard, the more they may find it reflective of how they think they should look. While this isn’t true in all cases, social media often does highlight unrealistic expectations, and adolescents don’t always fully understand that the pictures shown on screen do not match what the person looks like in real life.
Celebrities are unfortunately held to such a high standard on how “beauty” is or how we are supposed to look. In adolescent media, the characters are commonly drawn as thin people, or thin people are cast as the stars of the live-action shows. If there is someone in a larger body, they are often subject to jokes about their weight, highlighting the weight-based stigma and discrimination so prevalent in our society.
Along with the media, unsupportive relationships can trigger or worsen eating disorder symptoms. If an adolescent is exposed to someone who is constantly judging their own weight, trying different diets, and constantly commenting on others’ weights, the child may be more likely to develop an eating disorder.
It is important for adolescents to have social connections. They are usually more susceptible to social pressures and have a strong need for social acceptance. If a child is isolated with their eating disorder and the warning signs go unnoticed, this may create the perfect storm for the illness to take over.
How Eating Disorders Affect an Adolescent
There are many physical effects that can happen to an adolescent with an eating disorder. Internal organs can be affected. Examples include kidney failure, heart issues, kidney stones, or urinary tract infections. Growth can also be stunted from a lack of nutrients that should be in an adolescent’s typical diet.
Eating disorders often co-occur with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, to name a few. Seeking therapy from a mental health professional as soon as possible will benefit the adolescent in their recovery.
Supporting an Adolescent with an Eating Disorder
Patients usually don’t receive the help they need fast enough. Adolescents often suffer in silence. In today’s society, we should be talking about mental health more than we do. There is no shame in seeking therapy and help for mental health. Talking with an adolescent about their mental health, feelings, and emotions will help them in their recovery.
- Do they worry about their weight and body shape more than other people?
- Do they feel their weight is an important aspect of their identity?
- Are they fearful of gaining weight?
- Do they often feel out of control when they eat?
- Do they regularly eat until feeling uncomfortably full?
- Do they vomit after eating at least once per week?
- Do they exercise for the sole purpose of weight control?
Listen to your adolescent when they talk about their eating or exercise routines. Avoid criticizing or judging of any kind. Ask specialty healthcare professionals any questions you may have about eating disorders, and trust your gut instinct.
If there is concern that your adolescent may have an eating disorder, act fast and reach out to eating disorder professionals. The sooner the adolescent gets help, the better. Recovery is a process and will need time and patience.
Eating disorders are very complex and will take a lot of work to recover from. Remind the adolescent that they are loved, they are worthy of recovery, and they can recover. Remember to take care of yourself and be supportive. There are many ways eating disorders can impact families, but being stronger together will help in the recovery process.
If your adolescent is showing signs of an eating disorder, please reach out to Veritas Collaborative at 855-875-5812. Individualized and multidisciplinary care and support are offered for adolescents and families who are struggling with an eating disorder.