Signs Your Teen May Have an Eating Disorder

If you’re the parent of a teen, you know that change is constant: their favorite fashion, social app, or show might last six weeks, six months, or maybe just six days. These ever-changing likes and dislikes can also include food and eating habits. One day your teen announces they are going vegetarian and the next month they’ve moved on to the paleo diet. This week they’re skipping breakfast and snacking at midnight, but the next they’re craving a big bagel in the morning and a salad at dinner.

While it’s natural for teens to experiment with diet, big changes in eating habits can also signal an eating disorder. How can you tell the difference? Learn the signs, when to contact a physician, and steps you can take to encourage a healthy relationship with food and body image. 

Main Types of Eating Disorders

There are three main kinds of eating disorders. While each one is different, they all have a physical and mental component and can lead to serious health problems. It’s also worth noting that while eating disorders are more prevalent in girls, boys can develop eating disorders.

  • Anorexia is an obsession with being thin. This can include skipping meals, drastically reducing calories, and exercising for hours at a time.
  • Teens with bulimia are also focused on being thin, but purge after a meal by inducing vomiting or using laxatives. They may appear to be eating normally.
  • Binging is eating a large amount of food in a short time period and can lead to weight gain.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

Frequently Skips Meals
Missing an occasional meal isn’t cause for concern; however, if you notice your teen frequently skipping meals or making excuses not to eat — such as saying they ate at a friend’s house — it can signal the start of an eating disorder.

Obsessed with Exercise
A teen who spends hours each day running, weight training, or in other intense exercise routines may be trying to burn every calorie they consume and reach what is, in their mind, an acceptable body image.

Self-Critical of Appearance
All teens tend to be a little too self-conscious, but if your teen is complaining about being fat or ugly, it may be tied to serious body insecurity which could lead to an eating disorder.

Disappears After Meals
A teen with bulimia may regularly visit the bathroom after a meal to force themselves to vomit. They may also use laxatives, causing more frequent trips to the bathroom.

Avoids Restaurants and Family Gatherings
Some teens with eating disorders don’t want to eat in public. They may refuse to eat in a restaurant, the cafeteria at school, or with a large family group.

Hides Food
If your teen is stashing large amounts of food in their bedroom or you’re constantly finding food wrappers, it could be an indication of binge eating.

Dry Skin and Hair
A teen with bulimia or anorexia may stay dehydrated, leading to dry skin and hair.

Get Help Early

If you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, don’t put off getting help. Eating disorders can result in serious health complications, such as kidney or heart problems, blood pressure fluctuations, and more.

Talk to your teen in a loving and supportive manner about your concerns. Your family doctor will be able to put you in touch with resources to help, such as a counselor, a nutritionist, or programs designed to help people with eating disorders.

Need a Trusted Doctor or Counselor?

The primary care doctors at LeBauer HealthCare have experience in diagnosing eating disorders and helping families connect with resources in the community. A doctor may suggest running some medical tests first to determine if there is something physical contributing to the change in eating habits or to assess any complications an eating disorder may cause. You can request an appointment through an online form or by calling the location that’s most convenient for you. LeBauer also has a team of counselors for individual and family counseling.

Tips to Help Teens Develop a Healthy Body Image

Parents can take steps with children that can help nurture a positive attitude about their bodies. Keep these three tips in mind when talking with your children.  

  • Be Accepting of Physical Appearances
    Avoid complaining about your own weight, referring to yourself as fat, or criticizing other people’s weight and physical appearance.
  • Have a Holistic View of Exercise
    Rather than just thinking of exercise in terms of weight loss, talk about how activity can help you stay strong and healthy.
  • Discuss Media Images vs. Real Life
    Talk with your teen about how many images in the media, advertising, etc. have been altered to make people appear thinner or cover up imperfections.

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