By Miachelle DePiano

Eating disorders are more commonly known today, but they can still be difficult to identify early in their manifestation. If not recognized, the long term consequences are not just unhealthy, but can also be deadly. Understanding what the eating disorders are and when to seek help is crucial in raising today’s teens.

Sufferers of eating disorders use food as a means of having emotional control in their life.

While eating disorders are most often associated with girls, the reality is they affect both boys and girls. According to, boys comprise 25 percent of those with anorexia nervosa, and 40 percent of those with bulimia. Additionally, 50 percent of girls and 33 percent of boys use unhealthy weight control measures such as skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, smoking cigarettes and taking laxatives.

According to experts, sufferers of these disorders share common roots, behaviors and feelings. There may be a family history of eating disorders. “Our children are watching us,” says Dr. Dena Cabrera of Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders. “We are the role models. How we talk about our bodies sends a signal.”

For many, there is an inability to express feelings, and withdrawal from family, friends, and activities is common. Falling outside of the recommended Body Mass Index (BMI) ranges or sudden change on the growth and development chart ranges may also be an indication.

“If your child has been within a certain percentile on the growth chart, and then stops growing, that is a good indicator,” Dr. Cabrera says.

Understanding the different disorders is important to determining if your teen may have a problem.


Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder in which sufferers are obsessed with being thin and eat very little. It is recognized by dramatic weight loss, and an obsession with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting. Dr. Cabrera says, “Parents will start to see mood changes, how they [teens] talk about themselves, and talking about high perfectionism.” Anorexics may have “good and bad” food lists, refuse to eat certain foods, and may exercise excessively or display extreme calorie counting and portion control. Effects of anorexia include missing two or more menstrual cycles due to weight loss, mood swings, limited energy, depression and brittle nails.


Those who have bulimia nervosa also fear gaining weight, but binge eat, then use methods such as induced vomiting, exercise, laxatives or diuretics to get rid of the calories consumed. Like those with anorexia, bulimics exercise extreme calorie and portion control, and have low self-esteem and an obsession with perfectionism. Effects include fainting, headaches, poor memory, slowed thinking, and discoloration, staining of the teeth or erosion of the tooth enamel. The cardiovascular system and the throat and digestive systems can also be seriously affected.


Binge eating disorder, also referred to as compulsive eating, is characterized by reoccurring episodes of eating unhealthy and usually nutritionally unbalanced portions of food. These episodes are usually very quick and to the point of discomfort, and are accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt. Binge eating occurs within a short time period, and is accompanied by a feeling that the individual cannot control what or much is being eaten, and is often done in secrecy. Guilt, disgust and shame following the binge eating episode. Binge eating may occur during periods of boredom, stress or extreme emotions. Empty containers and wrappers may indicate a binge eating episode.


What to do if You Think Your Teen is Affected

Approaching your teen if you suspect they have an eating disorder can be a difficult conversation. recommends:

  • Seek out the advice of someone such as your family doctor. An annual physical may be a way to explore the possibility of an eating disorder and begin the conversation with your teen.
  • During the conversation about an eating disorder, focus on health, relationships and the future rather than current weight or appearance.
  • Express feelings of respect and concern, and be prepared for denial or anger. Sufferers are experiencing emotional pain and fear and anger are natural responses.
  • If your teen is willing to talk, be willing to listen.
  • Offer to help your teen find a health professional to talk to, whether a doctor, nutritionist or a counselor.
  • Avoid power struggles over food. Be prepared to set limits, but also be prepared that your child may need hospitalization to safely address the disease.


What is the treatment?

Treatment for eating disorders is a multi-faceted approach and is unique to each patient’s needs and circumstances. Ensuring your teen is stabilized at a weight that is normal under careful medical supervision is of the immediate concern. Medical treatment may involve addressing malnourishment, systemic issues affecting the heart or digestive system, and addiction. Identifying if there are co-occurring disorders as well as psychological illness is another aspect of treatment for those with an eating disorder. Treatment plans involve focusing on behavior and thinking processes, working with a nutritional counselor to develop a personalized plan both during treatment and after. Counseling and therapy is needed to work on the cause of the distorted self-image and relationships with food. Therapies are used to deal with emotions, stress and insecurities in a positive way. A relapse prevention plan is also developed.



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