Teens & Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are complex conditions that have their roots in mental, social, and biological factors. Characterized by a profoundly unhealthy preoccupation with food and body weight, and a serious distortion of body image, they are rarely simply about food. Rather, they are often precipitated by underlying painful or overwhelming emotions or mental distress. People with eating disorders attempt to compensate by consuming extremely small or large amounts of food.
Why are Teens and Young Adults at Greater Risk?
Eating disorders most often occur in teens and young adults.1, 2 According to the latest research, the median age of onset is between 8 and 21.3 The disorders are two to three times more common in females.4 The reasons why certain individuals are at greater risk remains unclear. Being female is an associated risk factor, as is having a family history of eating disorders.
In addition, the prevalence of mental disorders in adolescence may offer some clues. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders are among the most common conditions of adolescence — typically emerging by age 14 — and these same mental disorders are often found in adolescents with eating disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.5 Mental disorders can either precede or follow an eating disorder, setting up a ‘vicious cycle’ where the disorders reinforce each other.
Types of Eating Disorders
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a relentless pursuit of thinness and an unwillingness to maintain a normal healthy weight. Our society’s preoccupation with body image and the glorification of thinness can make an eating disorder difficult to detect. Parents and other adults may mistake the early stages of an eating disorder for a routine desire to take off some weight. With anorexia, the desire to lose weight takes a dramatic and potentially life-threatening turn.
As described in the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Facts for Families, a young woman with anorexia is often a high-achiever, yet paradoxically suffers from low self-esteem. As her food intake continues to diminish, and her weight drops to dramatically unhealthy levels, she irrationally insists that she is ‘fat’, and feels a sense of control and mastery in her ability to control food intake. She denies the seriousness of her weight loss and will not acknowledge its profoundly serious consequences.
Persons with bulimia nervosa will experience frequent episodes of binge-eating, consuming large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control. They attempt to compensate for this overeating through forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, exercise, or a combination of these behaviors (a cycle known as ‘binge and purge’). These activities – which can occur up to several times a day — are often done in secret.
Unlike people with anorexia, those with bulimia are typically a normal weight. While onset of anorexia occurs primarily in younger teens, bulimia often first develops in older adolescents. Like anorexia, the disease is primarily seen in females.