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Teens and Eating Disorders: What Are the Warning Signs?

Eating disorders are psychological problems that require therapeutic intervention. These disorders make normal functioning difficult and can become chronic, life-threatening illnesses requiring hospitalization.

If you suspect your teen (male or female; boys suffer from eating disorders, too) has a problem, talk to your doctor. Don't attempt to correct the problem alone. Eating disorders stem from an underlying problem, and if you focus on food without dealing with the larger issue, you run the risk of making things worse. It's vital that you seek help. Research shows that early recognition and treatment of eating disorders provide the best chance for recovery.

Anorexia Nervosa

In this disorder, a preoccupation with dieting and thinness leads to excessive weight loss through self-starvation.

Young adolescents who participate in sports such as dance or gymnastics where size and weight are important to success are especially prone to anorexia nervosa. (They're often told, “Be thin to win.”) Young girls who entered puberty early, have low self-esteem, or have negative feelings about their bodies are also potentially at risk. Here are some warning signs to watch for:

Info Flash

One percent of teenage girls in the United States develop anorexia nervosa; up to 10 percent of those who do may die as a result, according to information distributed by the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association.

  • Losing a significant amount of weight (25 percent of normal body weight) when no diet plan is needed or has been discussed
  • Distorted body image—the teenager feels “fat” even when she's very thin
  • Continuing to diet even once she's thin
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Amenorrhea (losing monthly menstrual periods)
  • Being preoccupied with food, calories, nutrition, and/or cooking
  • Exercising compulsively
  • Bingeing and purging

Bulimia Nervosa

This disorder involves frequent episodes of binge eating, almost always followed by purging (through vomiting, starvation, and laxatives) and intense feelings of guilt or shame about food. The bulimic feels out of control and recognizes that the behavior is not normal. Up to five percent of college women in the U.S. are bulimic, and one-third of bulimics have a history of being overweight. Here are some danger signs of bulimia:

  • Bingeing or eating uncontrollably, often secretly
  • Purging by strict dieting, fasting, vigorous exercise, vomiting, or abusing laxatives or diuretics in an effort to lose weight
  • Using the bathroom frequently after meals
  • Preoccupation with body weight
  • Depression or mood swings
  • Irregular periods
  • Developing dental problems, swollen cheek glands, or bloating

If you notice any warning signs, be sure to consult your doctor.


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager © 1996 by Kate Kelly. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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