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Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0

Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Teenagers

Overeating related to tension, poor nutritional habits, and food fads are relatively common eating problems for youngsters. In addition, two psychiatric eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia, are on the increase among teenage girls and young women. These two disorders also occur in boys, but much less often. Many health care professionals are trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat these psychiatric disorders, which are characterized by a preoccupation with food.

Parents frequently ask how to identify symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. The fact is that many teenagers are successful in hiding these serious and sometimes fatal disorders from their families for many months or years. Parents should be on the lookout for various symptoms and warning signs of anorexia nervosa and bulimia:

  • A teenager with anorexia nervosa is typically a perfectionist and a high achiever in school. At the same time, she suffers from low self-esteem, irrationally believing she is fat regardless of how thin she becomes. Desperately needing a feeling of mastery over her life, the teenager with anorexia nervosa experiences a sense of control only when she says "no" to the normal food demands of her body. In a relentless pursuit to be thin, the girl starves herself. This often reaches the point of serious damage to the body, and in a small number of cases may lead to death.
  • The symptoms of bulimia are different from those of anorexia nervosa. The teen binges on huge quantities of high-caloric food and then purges her body of dreaded calories by self-induced vomiting. Bulimics also often use laxatives. These binges may alternate with strict diets, resulting in dramatic weight fluctuations. Teenagers may try to hide the signs of throwing up by running water while spending long periods of time in the bathroom. The purging of bulimia presents a serious threat to the teen's physical health. Purging may result in dehydration, hormonal imbalance, the depletion of important minerals, and damage to vital organs.

Proper treatment can help teenagers control these disorders and relieve symptoms. Parents who notice symptoms of anorexia or bulimia in their teenagers should discuss their concerns with their teen's physician. When indicated, a referral can be made to a mental health professional who treats these disorders.

Developed by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
Copyright 1999 Clinical Reference Systems