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Eating disorders in teenagers

Around 725,000 people in the UK are affected by eating disorders, many of which develop between the ages of 16 and 17.

Eating disorders are psychological disorders that involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviour.

Women and girls are most likely to be affected by eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, compared to 11% of men and boys having these conditions.

A teenager with anorexia refuses to maintain a normal body weight. Someone with bulimia has repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compulsive behaviours such as vomiting or the use of laxatives to remove the food.

People with bulimia go through cycles of eating enormous amounts of foods followed by purging - by vomiting, laxative use, diuretics or hours of aerobic exercise.

How can I tell if my teenager has an eating disorder?

Warning signs of bulimia include:

  • Extreme preoccupation about weight
  • Strict dieting followed by high-calorie eating binges
  • Overeating when distressed
  • Feeling out of control
  • Disappearing after a meal
  • Depressive moods
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Frequent use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Excessive exercising
  • Irregular menstrual cycles

What causes eating disorders in teenagers?

There is no one cause of an eating disorder. Experts link eating disorders to a combination of factors, such as family relationships, psychological problems and genetics. The teen may have low self-esteem and be preoccupied with having a thin body.

Sometimes, being part of a sport such as ballet, gymnastics or running, where being lean is encouraged, is associated with eating disorders in teens. In one study, researchers linked anorexia with an obsession with perfectionism - concern over mistakes, high personal standards, and parental expectations and criticism.

What are symptoms of eating disorders in teens?

Symptoms of eating disorders may include the following:

  • A distorted body image
  • Skipping most meals
  • Unusual eating habits - such as eating thousands of calories at one meal or skipping meals
  • Frequent weighing
  • Extreme weight change
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Skin rash or dry skin
  • Dental cavities
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Loss of hair or nail quality
  • Hyperactivity and high interest in exercise

Teens with eating disorders are often in denial that anything is wrong. They may be moody, anxious, depressed. They may withdraw from friends, and become overly sensitive to criticism. The problem arises when parents are not aware of these symptoms because the teen keeps them hidden - just like the trauma, insecurities, depression, or low self-esteem that may help trigger the disorder.

How are eating disorders in teens treated?

There is no easy treatment for treating eating disorders.

A combination of treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medication, is most likely to help teens overcome bulimia. Cognitive behavioural therapy helps by identifying and replacing inaccurate thoughts to help change behavioural and emotional state.

Because anorexia is an extremely serious problem, the treatment usually involves nutritional feeding, medical monitoring and psychological treatment.

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