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Adolescents and Eating Disorders: What Are the Signs?

The adolescent years are a time of growth and transformation in many ways. Children will come up against new challenges and changes biologically, mentally and physically as they move into their teen years and into adulthood. They will work on becoming more independent, establishing new relationships outside of the home and learning to accept their changing bodies.

Along with physical development, they will also be working through new internal developments. With so many changes physically and psychologically, some adolescents will develop one or more eating disorders during this complicated time in life. While many advancements have been made when it comes to eating disorder treatment, parents should be aware that adolescents often need specialized eating disorder therapy.

Studies show that when children hit puberty, changes in the brain’s socio-emotional system make them more concerned with being socially accepted. These hormonal changes, along with other societal pressures and biological factors can make adolescents highly susceptible to crash dieting or disordered eating behaviors. Early intervention is extremely important for teens, as they have a better chance of overcoming their disordered eating behaviors before the condition escalates into a life-threatening illness.

While researchers have yet to define a single root cause of adolescent eating disorders, studies have shown there are a number of different factors to consider. Previous theories that only highlighted the pressure to be thin or controlling parents are now being pushed aside by evidence of different genetic and psychological factors. In fact, recent studies have identified genetics, adolescent onset, dieting culture and social pressures as some of the main causes of eating disorders in teens.

Common Adolescent Eating Disorders

Adolescents with eating disorders often seem just like any other hormonal teenagers but, in reality, they may be hiding disordered behaviors that could put them at risk for a number of different long-term health issues. While eating disorder treatment is something that is more easily accessible now than in the past, parents should do what they can to identify eating disorder behaviors before they become very serious.

Most people have heard the terms anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa before, but they don’t know what defines these common eating disorders and are unable to clearly identify their symptoms. Before an intervention between parents and their children can take place, some basic knowledge of common eating disorders is important.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is perhaps the most well-known eating disorder. It often develops in adolescence or young adulthood and typically affects women more often than men. Individuals with anorexia nervosa typically see themselves as overweight, even if by medical standards they are dangerously underweight. With this type of eating disorder, individuals will likely obsess over monitoring their weight, restrict their daily caloric intake and avoid eating certain types of food.

Individuals with anorexia nervosa may also show signs of obsessive-compulsive behaviors and find that their thoughts are preoccupied with food, often collecting recipes and/or hoarding food. They may also find it difficult to eat around others or in public. Over time, anorexia nervosa can be very damaging to the body, leading to thinning of the bones, infertility, heart complications, multi-organ failure and even death.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is typically categorized as the second most common eating disorder. Like anorexia nervosa, most people who develop bulimia nervosa do so in adolescence or early adulthood. In bulimia nervosa cases, individuals will typically follow a pattern of consuming unusually large amounts of food in a short period of time and then purging to compensate for the amount of calories consumed. Some of the most common purging behaviors include forced vomiting, fasting, overuse of laxatives or diuretics and excessive exercise.

People with this type of eating disorder can, at times, maintain a “normal” appearance and don’t always show as many physical warning signs as those with anorexia nervosa. Bulimia nervosa is just as dangerous and when left untreated can result in persistent irritation of the gut, worn tooth enamel, hormonal disturbances, stroke and heart attack.

Binge Eating Disorder

Although binge eating disorder has only been officially recognized as a separate eating disorder from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa fairly recently, it is believed to be one of the most common in the United States. Like other common eating disorders, binge eating disorder generally develops in adolescence or early adulthood. Individuals with this disorder have similar symptoms to those with the binge-eating subtype of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

With this eating disorder, people typically consume large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time, feeling a lack of self-control over their actions. But unlike similar disorders, individuals with binge-eating disorder do not engage in the acts of restricting calories or using purging behaviors, such as forced vomiting after binging. Those with binge eating disorder may also be overweight or obese, increasing the risk of a number of different medical complications including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Adolescents with Eating Disorders: Signs and Symptoms

While girls are much more likely to develop an eating disorder during adolescence, many young boys will develop disordered eating behaviors as well. The following signs and symptoms may help parents to identify eating disordered behaviors in adolescents and young adults:

Common Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

  • Extremely restricted eating patterns
  • Appearing considerably underweight when compared to peers of the same gender and age
  • Developing a distorted body image or denial that they are underweight
  • Fear of gaining weight, persistent dieting and restricting despite being underweight
  • Refusing to eat with others, eating meals in their room or hoarding food
  • Avoiding certain foods or food groups
  • Fasting or restricting calories

Common Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

  • Unusual behavior surrounding meals (children begin eating in their room, avoiding certain types of food or food groups, using the bathroom directly after meals)
  • An intense fear of gaining weight
  • Repeated and uncontrollable binge eating episodes over a specific period of time
  • Purging behaviors following a binge as an attempt to compensate for the amount of calories consumed
  • Dehydration and fatigue
  • Abnormal bowel functions, muscle cramps and menstrual irregularities
  • Obsession with body image, weight and dieting

Common Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder

  • Eating abnormally large amounts of food very rapidly, often done in secret and continues even after an individual becomes uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food despite not feeling hungry
  • A lack of control centered around binge eating episodes
  • Feeling shame or guilt around binge eating behaviors
  • An individual does not purge after binge eating, shows no signs of vomiting, calorie restriction, excessive laxative use, etc.
  • Depression, anxiety and self-hatred surrounding eating behaviors

What Are the Best Eating Disorder Treatment Options?

One of the first things many parents do when they discover that their child may have an eating disorder is to search online for “eating disorder treatment near me.” While exploring different eating disorder counseling and treatment options is important, it is also a good idea to avoid jumping into the first recovery program available. Any eating disorder treatment is very complex and should be attempted by a group of professionals with experience in both medical and psychological treatment methods.

Often times, eating disorders are accompanied by other psychological disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety, substance abuse and more. In instances where patients are dealing with co-occurring disorders, specialized eating disorder treatment is necessary.

Comprehensive Eating Disorder Counseling and Treatment

When left untreated, eating disorders can lead to a number of significant medical complications. That is one of the biggest reasons why parents and families should work hard to make sure adolescents receive care from a comprehensive eating disorder treatment program. Comprehensive care typically includes access to a medical doctor, psychologist and/or therapists, a dietitian or nutritionist and a physical therapist. However, it is also important to keep in mind that families and even close friends will play a key role in the recovery process.

Eating disorders can damage many different parts of the body including the brain, bones, heart, liver and kidneys. Access to medical care is often necessary to not only help correct changes in metabolism, but to monitor young teens for any related health complications. Additionally, psychologists or therapists can help kids learn proper skills to cope with negative behaviors and the distorted thinking patterns that often accompany an eating disorder.

Common Types of Eating Disorder Treatment

While there is not a perfect treatment solution that will work for every child, there are a few different therapies that have shown excellent results in teens with eating disorders. Some of the most common used today include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (E-CBT):Both of these eating disorder therapy options are relatively short-term treatments that focus on learning different beliefs, values and cognitive processes in order to help control eating disordered behaviors. With this type of therapy, individuals learn to modify distorted attitudes and beliefs surrounding weight, shape and a
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):With ACT, the patient learns to use mindfulness techniques and skills to accept and not judge current thoughts, while learning to change their behaviors to match their personal values. ACT teaches the patient to alter their actions, without first changing or eliminating negative thoughts or feelings.
  • Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT):CRT is designed to help individuals develop the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. By targeting the rigid thinking processes associated with eating disordered behaviors, patients learn to focus instead on simple exercises and reflection.
  • Family-Based Treatment (FBT):Also referred to as the Maudsley Method, FBT is a home-based treatment method that has shown to be effective in treating adolescents and young adults who have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Instead of focusing on the cause of the eating disordered behavior directly, this treatment option places initial focus on weight restoration to promote recovery. Family members are involved in the process by helping to restore regular practices surrounding meals before focusing on remaining issues. Family-Based Treatment has been controversial in the eating disorder field and, as with any for of treatment, should be heavily researched before participation.

How to Find Adolescent Eating Disorder Treatment Near Me

At Monte Nido and our affiliate programs, support for adolescents and their families is available. We are here to help you and your loved one on the path to full recovery from eating disordered behaviors. With many years of combined experience and training, the team at Monte Nido & Affiliates is able to prepare each adolescent patient and their family with the tools they need to navigate the recovery process and life after treatment.

All of the affiliate programs available through Monte Nido focus on both the medical and psychological aspects of treatment to better serve patients who have co-occurring disorders. With a comfortable and home-like setting, patients can dedicate their time to working through their individually designed treatment program and setting new goals for the future. For more information on the adolescent eating disorder treatment programs available at Monte Nido and our affiliates, call 1-888-228-1253 or contact admissions online today. Interested individuals and their loved ones can also keep in touch with the Monte Nido team on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.


Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.