Could you spot if your teen has an eating disorder?
Around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, many of which are developed during teenage years. Whilst eating disorders are more common in girls, around 1 in 4 of those affected are boys. Eating Disorders Awareness Week (“EDAW”) raises awareness around eating disorders, how to recognise them and where to get help. This year, EDAW runs from 28 February – 5 March 2024 and is hosted by BEAT.
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What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a form of mental illness, not fussy eating, a fad or an over-zealous diet. Eating disorders range from not eating enough to eating too much. They can be very dangerous, damaging overall wellbeing and sometimes causing serious health problems that can be life-threatening.
Teens might change their eating habits from time-to-time. Some of these changes will be short-lived, such as skipping a meal, cutting out certain food groups, intermittent fasting; others may be permanent, such as choosing to be become vegan or vegetarian. This is normal. Eating disorders involve unhealthy and extreme eating habits, where food is a way to control or block out thoughts and feelings.
Many parents are mindful that body image impacts the ways teens see themselves and, as a result, may influence how they feel about eating. It is true that some eating disorders can be triggered by body image issues; however, there are often multiple triggers, some of which could include bullying, family issues, worries at school, friendship worries, relationship difficulties and lifestyle changes. Genetics is also an influencer, with risk being higher if there is a history of eating disorders in the family.
Alongside the physical health risks, eating disorders can foster low self-esteem and isolation. They can be very stressful, not only for the individual with the disorder, but for the whole family. After all, food is often a focus used in family bonding, such as meal-times, celebratory events, and even evenings in front of the television. If your teen does have an eating disorder, it’s important to bear this in mind.
Different types of eating disorders
There are different eating disorders and it’s possible to have one, a combination or to move from one to another. The three most common types are anorexia (drastically reducing the quantity of food eaten, either by skipping meals or eating tiny amounts), bulimia (eating large quantities of food and then purging – by being sick or taking laxatives), and BED or Binge Eating Disorder (eating large quantities of food, usually in secret, but not purging).
Recognizing eating disorders in your teen
There are many different signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Some are obvious (significant weight changes, either up or down, in relatively short periods; disappearing to the toilet straight after eating; an unhealthy pre-occupation with weight/body image) and some are not (altering exercise routines, mood changes, missed periods, low energy). Bear in mind, teens will often go to great lengths to conceal their eating disorder and it can be relatively easy for the symptoms to go unnoticed by the people around them.
If you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, seek help and guidance from a specialist charity (some suggestions below) or your GP.
Supporting teens with eating disorders
There are several charities that specialise in providing support for those with eating disorders and their families, including Beat, National Centre for Eating Disorders, Overeaters Anonymous, Talk-Ed. It’s worth contacting them because they can provide specialist guidance. It is possible to recover from eating disorders, although this is usually a long-term process that requires dedication, patience and persistence.
It's worth bearing in mind that eating disorders are less about food and more about feelings, with the misdirected approach to food being symptomatic of trying to control upsetting emotions.
Talking, or more accurately, listening is always a good step. Stay calm, don’t judge them, and give them chance to express how they feel. Importantly, don’t feel slighted if it takes time for them to confide or be honest with you – being secretive is often part of the condition. Do what you can to learn about eating disorders, to help you understand the complexities of this condition.
Don’t try to avoid eating as a family or talking about food around them – it is good for them to see people enjoying food in healthy quantities. That said, avoid pointed comments about appearance, weight or food (such as, what did you eat at lunchtime?) and show support with more general, open questions (such as, how are you feeling today?).
Don’t forget, try to be a good role model by eating well, exercising sensibly and not over-consuming alcohol. It can be difficult to get them to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle if you don't seem to be taking those steps yourself.
Find out more about what you can do to support your teen's mental wellbeing in: