During adolescence, there can be a lot of pressure on teens to look and act a certain way. For some teens, these societal pressures, combined with psychological or physical factors, can lead to an eating disorder.
While somewhat uncommon, with an estimated three percent of teens affected, it’s important for parents to know the signs. Eating disorders can lead to serious damage of the brain, heart, bones, teeth, kidneys and liver, psychological distress, isolation and in severe cases, death.
Eating disorders are any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits and frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood. They are 2 1/2 times more common in females than males. Eating disorders are treatable illnesses that may co-occur with mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
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Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight and, often, an obsession with counting calories, eating very small portions and weighing oneself constantly. Those with anorexia may also exercise to an extreme level, abuse laxatives or diuretics or purge through vomiting. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, as it can lead to severe malnutrition and organ failure.
Unlike anorexia, those with bulimia nervosa are typically a normal weight. Those with bulimia nervosa often eat large amounts of food, only to follow it with purging the meal or exercising obsessively to counteract it. Like anorexia, bulimia can also lead to serious long-term health problems, including abnormal heart rhythms, bleeding from the esophagus due to stomach acid reflux, and dental and kidney problems.
Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States and is similar to bulimia in that those affected also binge eat. However, it differs in that the periods are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting, so it often leads to obesity, which then may cause medical complications such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. After a binge, feelings of shame, self-hatred, anxiety and depression are common.
If you think your teen may have an eating disorder, your family doctor can provide assistance. To start to address what may be an eating disorder with your teen, you might say something like “I’ve noticed that you aren’t eating much at dinner anymore. Are you OK?” and then let your teen do most of the talking. There are plenty of treatments out there for these illnesses. Psychotherapy can help, as well as antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers.
If you think your teen might have an eating disorder and is not in immediate danger, make an appointment with your family doctor to diagnose it and begin the road to recovery.
Dr. Landi Cranstoun is with KentuckyOne Health, KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates, Berea