A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders in Teens

by | Eating Disorder Recovery

It’s hard being a teenager these days. The societal pressure to achieve, excel in school, and also balance a social life at the same time can feel very overwhelming. To make matters worse, we live in a society obsessed with aesthetics and appearances. These negative pressures and narratives can be very damaging for teenagers, who are at a time in their life when they are still learning about the world around them and starting to figure out who they are.

As caregivers and adults, it’s important that we educate ourselves about the potential mental health struggles that teenagers may develop, including eating disorders. Therefore, in this blog post, I will provide an overview of eating disorders in teens. 

What Contributes to an Eating Disorder? 

Adolescence is a time of a lot of change, especially for our bodies. Teenagers’odies are maturing and developing and moving away from a childlike appearance. This can feel distressing to some teens and influence the desire to control how their body is growing and developing. In addition to this, the use of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram have created a world where it is easy for teenagers to compare themselves to others. Teens are a vulnerable group of people! These comparisons are harmful and influence teens to become unhappy with their appearance. As a result, teens might begin to engage in disordered eating behaviors. 

These behaviors can also be caused or exacerbated by the abundance of nutrition misinformation across the internet. It is easy to see an influencer on social media platforms who may appear to be knowledgeable in health and nutrition but could actually be spreading misinformation and harmful messaging around food and bodies. Popularized, “What I Eat in a Day” videos show influencers documenting a full day of meals, which are often small and not nutritionally balanced. These videos can be harmful because they make viewers feel guilty or ashamed if they don’t eat the same foods or proportions as these influencers. Furthermore, these videos perpetuate the notion that everyone should eat the same, which is simply not true. Unfortunately, diet culture teaches teens that certain body types and ways of eating are superior or more attractive than others. This lack of messaging regarding body diversity and acceptance is extremely harmful to such a susceptible population. 

In addition to societal pressures, well-meaning healthcare professionals can also unknowingly contribute to the development of eating disorders in teens by emphasizing the importance of weight during appointments, rather than overall health. To try to combat this, parents can request that their teen is weighed via blind weights and that weights are not discussed. Similarly, if weight is brought up during appointments or a new diet is recommended, parents can reach out to a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders for another opinion. 

Signs That Your Teen May Have an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are complex and very serious medical illnesses. With the second-highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, it is important to detect and treat eating disorders as early as possible. Often, eating disorders can start off as seemingly innocent. 

Let’s review some behavioral changes and physical symptoms your teen might experience if they have an eating disorder:

Behavioral Changes

  • Taking a sudden interest in being “healthier” 
  • The foods on their plate have changed from the standard family meal to more foods typically labeled as healthy 
  • Portions are getting smaller
  • Entire food groups or types of foods are being cut out
  • You are noticing more preoccupation with their appearance; your teen is spending more time getting ready in the mornings or before outings 
  • Exercise habits are changing- your teen is engaging in more movement or movement that appears compensatory 
  • Anxiety, irritability, or anger around meals, which can be initially seen as typical “teenage angst” 
  • Rigidity around food and mealtimes (I.E. everything needs to be done or prepared in specific way, which can often be seen as picky eating)
  • Avoidance of family mealtimes 
  • Isolating self immediately after eating 
  • Sudden change in clothing or preference to wear “baggy” clothes 

Physical Signs

  • Sudden weight loss or rapid changes in weight in a short amount of time 
  • Complaint of coldness, dizziness, or lightheadedness 
  • Changes in menstrual cycle or sudden absence of menstruation 
  • Complaint of abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea 
  • Hair loss, brittle nails, dry skin 
  • Dental pain, cavities, and/or changes in overall dental health 
  • Brain fog, difficulty holding attention and concentrating 
  • Fainting incidents and/or feeling on the verge of fainting 
  • Abnormal laboratory results- especially in glucose, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, blood panels 
  • Low heart rate 

What Can I Do as a Parent? 

Unfortunately, we live in a society where it is the norm for the topic of weight, food, and bodies to be in everyday conversations. It is important to send neutral messaging around food and bodies to our teens. Works towards moving away from talk directed at your own body or your teen’s body and moving towards talk that is not appearance driven. 

For example, avoid using:

  • “You look thin today”
  • “That shirt looks great on you”
  • “I feel so fat in this outfit” 
  • “I wish I could fit in to a smaller size”
  • “Are you sure you want to eat that?”
  • “I would look better if I could lose X amount of pounds…”
  • “You look like you have lost weight, you look great!”
  • “This food is junk food” 
  • “That food is bad for you”
  • “That food is good for you”
  • “I feel guilty after eating that…”

Instead, try using:

  • “You look energized today”
  • “You look happy today”
  • “There are no good or bad foods, all foods give nourishment”
  • “We need food to nourish our bodies and brains”
  • “Food is more than just nourishment”
  • “My body is smart and will tell me exactly what it needs”
  • “This food is nourishing my body, so that I can continue to think, feel, process, and go about my day” 
  • “This food is giving my body vital nutrients that it needs”
  • This food is giving my brain energy/fuel 
  • “All foods have nutrients and nourish my body no matter what type of food”
  • “I am more than my body”
  • “My body is the least interesting thing about me”
  • “My body is my own body, I am special and unique just as I am”

It is also important to talk to your teen about critically evaluating messaging around food and bodies…

  • Is this source trying to sell me a product or service?
  • Is this source making blanket recommendations for the entire population?
  • Is this source making claims that seem too good to be true?
  • Is this source recommending the avoidance of certain food or entire food groups? 

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you likely have come across nutrition misinformation. It is always important to determine if a source has proper nutrition credentials. Look for the letters “RD” or “RDN” after the source’s name, and preferably the source would be a registered dietitian specializing in disordered eating. 

How Can Courage to Nourish Help?

Thank you for reading this resource on eating disorders in teens. If you do suspect that your teen has an eating disorder or is engaging in disordered eating, there are options for support. The first line of recommendation would be to build a team of clinicians who are educated and specialize in treating teens and adolescents with eating disorders.

At Courage to Nourish, our team of eating disorder dietitians are trained to help people from all backgrounds, including teens and adolescents, develop a more positive relationship with food. In addition to providing one-on-one counseling with clients, we offer family counseling and have several support groups to help guide those with loved ones suffering from an eating disorder. If you and your family are not sure what next steps to take in your teens recovery journey, we offer consults to help develop treatment plans. We also have numerous handouts and blog posts posted on our website that can serve as valuable resources for learning more about eating disorders and treatment options.

Contact Us

Courage to Nourish is a group of eating disorder specialized dietitians. We have in person locations in Alexandria, Virginia, Columbia, Maryland. and College Park, Maryland. We offer virtual services across the state of Virginia, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. We offer individual nutrition therapy. As well as support groups. We would love to guide you in building a better relationship with food.

Contact us for more information. And to schedule a discovery call. Also, sign up for our client or clinician newsletter!

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Meet the Dietitian: Lauren Comunale

Lauren Comunale, MS, RD, LD

Lauren is an anti-diet eating disorder dietitian who specializes in working with kids/adolescents and their families and college students. She also specializes in ARFID nutrition and enjoys working with clients who have chronic health conditions and have been harmed by our medical system. Learn more about Lauren here.

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