Nearly 3% of teenagers between the ages of 13-18 — boys as well as girls — struggle with food, weight and body image issues severe enough to constitute an eating disorder.1 Such disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating) seriously affect both physical and mental health, and in some instances can be life-threatening.
As with all medical and behavioral conditions, early detection offers a treatment advantage. But detecting unhealthy food-related behavior can be tricky, with some studies suggesting that as many as 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys skip meals, fast, smoke cigarettes, vomit, and use laxatives to control their weight — not always signs of an eating disorder.2 Parents sometimes say, "it looked like normal adolescent behavior," which often it is: it's not unusual for teens to skip breakfast or announce, "I'm trying to be more healthy." And so unhealthy food-related behaviors can fly under parents' radar. Here are the signs to look for:
- Restricting more and more food groups. Kids announce they want to eat healthfully and eliminate sweets, then carbs, then fats and soon there's little left — the diet has become extremely limited. It's less a problem when a teen removes certain food groups and replaces them with others, but noteworthy when they remove more and more.
- Significant weight change. Whether loss or gain, it should be watched, especially rapid weight loss. When teens become fixated on the scale and its numbers ("I just want to lose five pounds…") and the pursuit of weight loss continues despite little evidence of a weight problem — another five, and then another five — there's reason for concern.
- Repeated extended stints in the bathroom. Especially with the water running, bathroom spells may conceal purging (vomiting), part of the binge and purge cycle of bulimia.
- Excessive exercise. If your son or daughter comes home from team practice and insists on going to the gym for another hour afterwards, take note. When coupled with restrictive eating patterns, excessive exercise might signal trouble.
- Repeatedly avoiding activities when food is involved. Begging off friends' pizza parties or family meals around the dinner table ("I’ll eat in my room," or "I'm not hungry because I had a big lunch,") may disguise a food-avoidance habit.
Coupled with some of the aforementioned indicators, reduced energy, isolation, irritability and social withdrawal can accompany an eating disorder. Seek professional help when you find yourself worried about your child's food-related behaviors.3
1 "Eating disorders: facts about eating disorders and the search for solutions." The National Institute of Mental Health: Pub No. 01-4901. www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders-new-trifold/index.shtml.
2 Merikangas KR, et al. "Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A)." Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (10):980-989. October 2010.
3 Contents of this Tip were provided by Shari Rogers, a licensed clinical social worker and eating disorders specialist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.