Teenagers don’t always have the healthiest eating habits. You might be concerned that your teen doesn’t eat enough vegetables, that he or she eats too much sugar or too many potato chips, or that they’re skipping meals due to being so busy with school, sports, and socializing. While it’s common for adolescents to make bad choices when it comes to nutrition, some teens exhibit teen eating disorder symptoms. An eating disorder is a type of mental health issue that can lead to a variety of physical health problems. If you aren’t sure whether your teenager’s eating habits are just an annoyance or indicative of something more serious, here are five teen eating disorder symptoms to watch for.
1. Drastic Weight Fluctuations
Many teens, particularly boys, will put on extra weight just before a growth spurt. Also, a previously chubby pre-teen girl might begin to slim down as she develops more adult-like curves. These are usually normal and nothing to worry about, though if you have concerns, you should consult with your child’s pediatrician or family doctor.
Losing or gaining a large amount of weight relatively quickly, however, is not normal in most cases. Teens with anorexia nervosa may go so far as to starve themselves in an effort to lose weight. Those who have a binge-eating disorder may eat large amounts of food in a short period of time, leading to weight gain or even obesity.
Be aware that not all teen eating disorders cause dramatic changes in weight. Bulimia, for example, might not cause much weight loss at all, because periods of binging are followed by periods of purging (vomiting).
2. Secrecy Around Eating
Most teens don’t try to hide what they’re eating. Your perfectly normal teen might fib about whether he or she ate the last two pieces of pie that you were saving, but for the most part, an adolescent without an eating disorder will be honest if asked what they had for lunch or if they had a snack after school.
A teenager with an eating disorder, however, might do everything possible to cover it up. Someone with anorexia might pretend to eat, and then end up throwing the food away. They might also look for ways to avoid sitting with the rest of the family at mealtimes. Bulimics and binge eaters generally do not want anyone to know how much they are eating. They might hide food wrappers or go off to eat in secret.
3. Extremely Picky Eating
Many kids are picky eaters, and some don’t outgrow this tendency as they hit their teen years. If your child has always avoided a handful of foods and still continues to do so while still maintaining a normal weight, it is likely just strong preferences at play, rather than an eating disorder.
If, however, your teen has suddenly picked up newly picky eating habits or if they’ve avoided a large number of foods, leading to slow growth or weight loss, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or AFRID, might be the cause. AFRID can be a physical disorder or a mental health disorder, and refusal to eat certain foods can stem from difficulty in digesting the foods, a sensory issue that makes certain textures unpalatable, or even a mental block from vomiting after eating a certain food. Your teen’s doctor can help you determine whether picking eating is actually something more serious.
4. Excessive Exercise
Some parents might find it difficult to get their teens off of the couch, while others are exhausted just watching their child go from soccer practice to a game of basketball in the driveway five nights per week, plus swimming or running on the weekends. You know what is normal for your own teenager; being very athletic is not necessarily a cause for concern.
If your teen seems obsessed with exercising and working out, it could indicate a problem. He or she might spend hours on the treadmill or worry about how many calories are being expended. It might seem as though there’s an addiction to exercise at play; maybe they get very upset if they have to miss a workout or decline other opportunities because they don’t want to neglect their exercise for that day.
5. Poor or Distorted Body Image
Many teenagers are self-conscious about their bodies. Your son or daughter might think they’re too tall, too short, too thin, too chubby, too weak, too flabby. With the influence of perfect bodies on television and in movies, it’s no wonder that kids often have a skewed sense of what’s normal. Add to that hormonal fluctuations and the social awkwardness that comes with the territory of adolescence, and you’ve got a recipe for bad feelings and poor body image.
A teen with an eating disorder might be obsessed with thoughts about their body image, however. They may talk incessantly about the things about their body that they’d like to change. A slim teen might also insist that they’re fat or in terrible shape. One sign of an eating disorder is having a distorted body image — that is, thinking that they are heavier or flabbier than they actually are. While you can’t see what your teen is thinking, if they commonly mention that they feel fat when they are actually of a normal weight (or underweight), this could indicate an eating disorder.
What to do if Your Teen Displays Teen Eating Disorder Symptoms
As a parent, you might be wondering what you can do it you notice that your adolescent son or daughter has any of these teen eating disorder symptoms. The first step after noticing these teen eating disorder symptoms is to try talking to your teen. If they know that there is a problem, they might be relieved that you are asking. A visit to his or her primary care physician can also either set your mind at ease or help to convince your child that their health is at stake. Finally, there are inpatient and outpatient treatment programs that can help your teen achieve recovery and a new, healthy way of looking at food and nutrition. By being open with your teenager, you can get him or her the necessary treatment and help cement healthy eating habits now and for the future.