Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents

Disordered eating are relatively common problems in children and teens. Though picky eating and concerns about body image or weight can be a normal part of development, there are several eating disorders that can affect youth. Eating disorders can progress to the point of serious health consequences and even death if left untreated. For more information, please see Eating Disorders in Teens from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).

While young females make up the greatest number of cases of eating disorders, males can also present with eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized as disordered eating driven by fear of gaining weight or a strong desire to change body shape, which results in lower than expected body weight or lack of appropriate growth. Some people who struggle with anorexia nervosa severely restrict the amount or type of food they eat, while others eat large amounts of food and then rid their body of the food/calories through self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, diet pills, or laxatives. It is estimated that 0.5% of adolescent females are experiencing anorexia nervosa, with 10 females diagnosed for every 1 male.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by periods of eating a large amount of food and then rid the body of the food/calories to avoid weight gain through various ways, much like patients with anorexia nervosa, including self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, diet pills, or laxatives; while individuals with anorexia nervosa are under weight, those with bulimia nervosa are of normal weight or over ideal weight. It is estimated that 1% of adolescent females are experiencing bulimia nervosa, with 10 females diagnosed for every 1 male.

There are some eating disorders that are not driven by fear of gaining weight or desire to change one’s body shape. Examples include Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Pica.

Warning signs of potential eating disorders include preoccupation with weight, food, calories, or diets; refusal to eat certain foods or food groups; mood swings; frequent checking of body image in mirror; skipping meals or only eating small portions; refusal to eat around others; menstrual cycle irregularities; dental problems including enamel erosion or cavities; and large changes in weight (can be weight gain, weight loss, or fluctuation between both). For a more comprehensive list of warning signs and detailed explanation of common eating disorders, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

Treatment of eating disorders includes psychotherapy and sometimes medications, but most importantly, appropriate treatment of eating disorders is through a team approach, including doctors, family therapy, individual psychotherapy, and nutritionist.