Home Health What Causes Eating Disorders in Teens?

What Causes Eating Disorders in Teens?

Eating Disorders

Teens face a multitude of obstacles as they navigate these formative years and learn what it means to become an adult. However, resulting from these pressure and challenges, many may develop mental health issues. One of the most common is eating disorders in teens as they develop an unhealthy relationship with food, which can lead to physical and emotional health issues. 

But what causes eating disorders in teens? And are there effective treatment options? Here, we take a closer look at eating disorders in teens and answer those questions and more. Eating disorders in teens are regrettably common, which is why it’s so important to understand this mental health condition and know how to respond. 


According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), eating disorders are “illnesses in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” Essentially, individuals with an eating disorder develop an unhealthy relationship with food—whether this is eating too much or too little—which can lead to mental health issues (anxiety and depression) or physical health issues because the body isn’t receiving the right amount of nutrition. 


While each case of an eating disorder is unique and personal, doctors have categorized three primary types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Here’s a brief description of each of these types of eating disorders.

1. Anorexia.

Also known as anorexia nervosa, this eating disorder is related to a fear of gaining weight and an intense emphasis on remaining thin. To achieve this, teens may stop eating or only eat very little, leading to a litany of health issues.

2. Bulimia.

This eating disorder is characterized by episodes of bingeing. During these episodes, an individual will consume a large amount of food and then purge (throw up) the food so that they won’t gain any weight. As a result, the body doesn’t receive the nutrition it needs.

3. Binge-eating disorder.

Similar to bulimia, binge-eating disorder is characterized by episodes of binge eating without the act of purging. Teens with binge-eating disorder may find it difficult to control themselves around food, and as a result, may feel ashamed and develop anxiety or depression. 


Compared to adults, eating disorders are more common in teens. Why is this? There are a variety of factors that heighten the risk for teens to develop an eating disorder, including anxiety, trauma, and peer pressure.

Despite extensive research, doctors have not been able to identify one specific cause for eating disorders or how a teen develops this concern for the “perfect body.” Teens are especially susceptible to peer pressure, bullying, and insecurity issues. These issues may develop into an eating disorder. 

While boys and girls can develop eating disorders, this issue is much more common in females. In fact, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), roughly 1 out of 10 young women in the United States will develop some form of an eating disorder. This prevalence for eating disorders in young women may stem from the pressure women face to control their weight and maintain an ideal body type. 


While each case is unique, there are many warning signs that can help you identify whether or not your teen may be experiencing an eating disorder. Here are some of the most common symptoms of the three main types of eating disorders:

Symptoms of anorexia include:

·  Unusual eating habits.

·  Fear of weight gain.

·  Obsession with weight.

·  Refusal to eat.

·  Significant weight loss.

·  Lightheaded and dizzy.

·  Hair loss.

·  Depression.

·  Low self-esteem.

·  Social isolation.

Symptoms of bulimia include:

·  Extreme habits around food.

·  Hiding food.

·  Social isolation.

·  Low self-esteem.

·  Depression.

·  Mood swings.

·  Dental problems.

·  Chest pains.

·  Mouth ulcers.

·  Dehydration.

·  Constipation.

Symptoms of binge-eating disorder include:

·  Food frequently disappears. 

·  Rapid weight gain.

·  Changes in sleeping patterns.

·  Lethargy.

·  Secretive behavior around eating and food.

·  Social isolation.

·  Depression.

·  Low self-esteem.

·  Obsession with food.

While this list includes some of the most common symptoms, it is not a complete list. Additionally, teens may exhibit only certain symptoms, which makes it even more difficult to identify an eating disorder.

If any of these symptoms do sound familiar, you should first have an open and honest conversation with your teen. If you both agree that outside help could prove beneficial, then you can reach out to a medical professional. Treatment is vastly more effective when the parent and the teen are open and willing. 


There are two primary components to treating an eating disorder: the physical component and the mental component. Especially for a teen with anorexia or bulimia, the first step in treatment is addressing the physical needs and helping the patient return to a healthy weight. Lack of nutrition can have damaging effects on someone’s overall health.

Once a healthy weight is maintained, a treatment plan must address the underlying mental or emotional issues that have led to the eating disorder. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be effective at helping teens identify the underlying cause of their disorder and help them cope and develop healthier habits and behaviors. In many cases, treatment plans incorporate nutritional counselors who can then help the teen form a healthy relationship with food. 


Eating disorders in teens can be challenging to identify because the teen will often actively try to hide this condition from others. Whether out of shame or guilt, they might be unwilling to talk about it and your teen may not even understand why they have an unhealthy relationship with food. Often, it’s caused by social anxiety, pressure, or trauma. 
But there is hope. If you believe your teen has an eating disorder, there are various methods of eating disorder treatment at teen treatment centers that have proven effective for many people. What’s most important is that you engage in an open and honest conversation to identify the issue and help your teen return to a normal, happy life. Creating a dialogue is the first step.


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