The teen years can be difficult for both boys and girls. Looks are extremely important for most teens, who focus mainly on body image. Often teens have unrealistic notions about the way their bodies should look. Boys usually put more emphasis on exercising, especially with weights. Teenage girls tend to diet as they strive for the perfect body. This usually involves some type of fad diet, and that can be very dangerous, especially during the adolescent years. Concerns about weight can also lead girls to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and the abuse of medications such as laxatives or diuretics.
Being obsessive about weight can result in various eating disorders. An estimated one million or more Americans suffer from some type of eating disorder. Eating disorders are more than a food problem and are linked to psychological problems.
Anorexia and Bulimia
Anorexia nervosa is a common eating disorder that usually begins at the age of fourteen or fifteen (but can occur at a younger age), with another peak in incidence among eighteen-year-olds. It is more common in adolescent girls, but is also found in boys and its incidence has been increasing. Anorexia causes an overwhelming fear of being overweight and a drive to be thin, leading to self-induced starvation or an extreme restriction of calories that can lead to being severely underweight. Anorexia is linked to menstrual irregularity, osteoporosis (brittle bone disease) in women, and a greater risk of early death in both men and women.
Bulimia, another eating disorder, is marked by a loss of control and binge eating, followed by purging behaviors. The person gorges on highcalorie foods and then intentionally vomits or uses laxatives or diuretics.
Signs to Watch For
If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder, here are some factors to look for:
Recent weight loss of 15 percent or more of normal body weight, with no medical reason
A fear of gaining weight or of being overweight
Purging behaviors (vomiting or using diuretics — water pills — or laxatives to lose weight)
Having a distorted image of body size or shape (for example, believing she is overweight even though she is at a healthy weight or even underweight)
A preoccupation with thoughts of food, calories, and weight
Restrictive eating patterns such as frequently skipping meals, fasting, or eliminating entire food groups
A preference for eating alone
For young women, amenorrhea (absence of menstrual cycles) or delayed onset of puberty
Being underweight, with a body mass index that is below normal
An extreme denial of the possibility of eating disorder
Withdrawal from friends and family
Wearing bulky clothing to hide weight loss
A recent or past event in life that was very stressful
You should have your child seen by a physician as soon as possible if you think she or he might have an eating disorder. Eating disorders can cause extreme undernourishment and even death. The best treatment for eating disorders combines medical, psychological, and nutrition counseling.
For more information about eating disorders, contact the National Eating Disorders Association at