Watch for these warning signs of eating disorders in your teens.
The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented surge in eating disorders among adolescents. Hospitalizations are up among both teen boys and girls, and wait lists for treatment programs can be months long.
Studio 5 Health Contributor Miki Eberhardt says early prevention is key.
Find more advice from Miki on Instagram, @nutritionbymiki.
Common Myths About Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are ‘not about food.’
This is a pervasive cultural belief—that it’s always something else, that the disorder is merely an outward manifestation of turmoil. However, in most cases, it is about the food. When kids are inundated with images of body shots every where they look, it’s easy for negative or obsessive thoughts about body size or shape to take over. The eating disorder “train” usually starts from kids not eating enough in an effort to help their worry or complaint about being fat or feeling the need to lose weight. (Note: eating disorders are possible without body insecurity)
People with eating disorders don’t eat.
They do. They eat not enough or not enough variety which can lead to undernourishment or malnutrition. Starvation doesn’t mean zero food. It can also show up as secretive eating or regular eating followed by hurrying to the bathroom.
‘Healthy eating’ is always healthy.
What typically happens is that kids get the message that there are ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods and ‘healthy’ bodies and ‘unhealthy’ bodies based on weight alone. However, ‘healthy eating’ is the catalyst for many adolescent eating disorders. Kids can very quickly get an energy deficit. That under-fueling is what triggers many eating disorders.
Eating disorders result from pre-existing trauma or mental illness.
They can, but also, oft times people see someone who has anxiety or depression around food and think that they’re not eating because they have anxiety or depression. But what can be more likely is that you can be seeing symptoms of starvation. What people think of as triggers for eating disorders are more often the result of malnutrition.
So, let’s get to what parents should look for when it comes to warning signs in teens.
4 Warning Signs in Teens Parents Should Know
Exercise becomes obsessive.
Ask yourself, “Is your child’s exercise for their sport, is it joyful, is it something they look forward to, do they take rest days?” When you start to see a more compulsive side to it, when the daily exercise must happen even when injured, tired, or sick, that’s a sign for parents to get help.
Anxiety around eating.
If your teen is cutting out any food groups, that’s definitely something to keep an eye on. When their favorite foods are no longer in rotation. If they don’t want to eat with the family. If they avoid situations that include eating in front of others. If excuses are made about not being able to eat with friends or family. If there are eating rituals that start to happen where maybe your teen obsessively cuts food into small pieces or arranges food to create the appearance of actually eating, while little or no food is actually consumed. Also, if your child says they want to start eating clean or eating ‘healthy,’ that’s a huge red flag. That’s when parents want to really ask questions.: “What do you mean by that, or where did you hear that?”
Changes in appearance or other physiological changes
Significant loss, gain, or fluctuation in weight. Puffy cheeks due to swollen salivary glands. Hair loss, dry hair or skin, or excessive facial or body hair. Unusual sleep patterns, develops a sensitivity to cold, feels fait or tired, menstrual cycles stop or become irregular. All red flags. Even if your teen is in a larger body and probably being encouraged to lose weight, maybe even by a well-meaning pediatrician or coach, that’s something to really keep an eye on. A growing child losing weight should be cause for concern, not cause for celebration.
Changes in mood.
For a lot of parents, it’s just seeing the sparkle go out of their kid’s eyes. Maybe your teen withdraws from usual friends and activities. Isolates or gets moody especially after eating. Puberty and adolescence in general get a bad rap in our culture. So many parents chalk up moodiness or withdrawal or irritability to “Oh, that’s hormones” but if your teen doesn’t seem like him or herself, it’s worth getting outside support.
So, what’s a parent to do if we see some of these warning signs in teens? You want to seek out support from therapists and dietitians who are trained to handle eating disorders. For more information and free resources, visit these organizations which are all geared to parents helping our teens: