People who intentionally starve themselves suffer from an eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. The disorder, which usually begins in young people around the time of puberty, involves extreme weight loss – at least 15 percent below the individual’s normal body weight.
Those experiencing anorexia nervosa also have an intense fear of becoming fat, even though they are underweight. Many people with the disorder look emaciated but are convinced they are overweight. The exact cause of eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder — is unknown. However, various factors might put teens at risk of developing eating disorders.
- Societal pressure. Modern Western culture tends to place a premium on being physically attractive and having a slim body. Even with normal body weight, teens can easily develop the perception that they’re fat. This can trigger an obsession with losing weight, dieting and being thin — especially for teen girls.
- Low self-esteem. Teens who have low self-esteem might use their eating habits or weight loss to achieve a sense of stability or control.
- Favorite activities. Participation in activities that value leanness — such as wrestling, running and ballet — can increase the risk of teen eating disorders.
- Personal factors. Genetics or biological factors might make some teens more likely to develop eating disorders. Personality traits such as perfectionism, anxiety or rigidity might also play a role.
Prevention begins with open communication
To help prevent & treat teen eating disorders, talk to your teen about eating habits and body image. It might not be easy, but it’s important.
To get started:
- Encourage reasonable eating habits. Talk to your teen about how diet can affect his or her health, appearance and energy level. Encourage your teen to eat when he or she is hungry. Make a habit of eating together as a family.
- Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies, websites and other media might send your teen the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your teen to talk about and question what he or she has seen or heard — especially from websites or other sources that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than an eating disorder.
- Promote a healthy body image. Talk to your teen about his or her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Don’t allow hurtful nicknames or jokes based on a person’s physical characteristics. Avoid making comments about another person based on his or her weight or body shape.
- Foster self-esteem. Respect your teen’s accomplishments, and support his or her goals. Listen when your teen speaks. Look for positive qualities in your teen, such as curiosity, generosity and a sense of humor. Remind your teen that your love and acceptance is unconditional — not based on his or her weight or appearance.
- Share the dangers of dieting and emotional eating. Explain that dieting can compromise your teen’s nutrition, growth, and health, as well as lead to the development of binge-eating over time. Remind your teen that eating or controlling his or her diet isn’t a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage your teen to talk to loved ones, friends or a counselor about problems he or she might be facing.
- Use food for nourishment — not as a reward or consequence. Resist the temptation to offer food as a bribe. Similarly, don’t take away food as a punishment.
Also, remember the importance of setting a good example yourself. If you’re constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you might have a hard time encouraging your teen to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with his or her appearance. Instead, make conscious choices about your lifestyle and take pride in your body.
Teaming up with your teen’s doctor
Your teen’s doctor can reinforce the messages you’re giving your teen at home and help identify early signs of an eating disorder.
For example, the doctor can look for unusual changes in your teen’s body mass index or weight percentiles during routine medical appointments. The doctor can talk to your teen about his or her eating habits, exercise routine, and body image. If necessary, he or she can refer your teen to a mental health provider.
Seeking help for teen eating disorders
If you suspect that your teen has an eating disorder — you’ve noticed baggy clothes to hide weight loss, for example, or perhaps excessive exercise or reluctance to eat meals with the family — talk to him or her. Encourage your teen to open up about his or her problems and concerns.
Another solution can be scheduling an appointment to see a counselor for eating disorders. The counselor can help navigate the emotional turmoil the teen is experiencing and work with them to discover the root causes of the eating disorder.
If your teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder, treatment will likely involve family therapy that helps you work with your child to improve his or her eating habits, reach a healthy weight, and manage other symptoms. Sometimes medication is prescribed to treat accompanying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In severe cases, hospitalization might be needed.