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Is your teen at risk for an eating disorder?

Food fuels our bodies and our brains. It is our most basic need, and for many of us, food is an important part of what makes life good. Unfortunately, for people with eating disorders, food may seem like the enemy. We are diagnosing more eating disorders than ever before. In the U.S., 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from eating disorders during their lifetime—and even more go undiagnosed. 

Surveys have shown 40-60 percent of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. A recent study estimates a half million teens (males and females in equal measure) struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating. That's a lot of kids! 

This is especially concerning because adequate nutrition is very important during adolescence for appropriate growth, healthy bone, brain and reproductive development. I think it's hard for kids (and adults!) today to manage all the messages about diet, exercise and how one's body should look.

Warning signs
When I see a child or teen, I always review his or her growth charts; this can be my first indication that something is wrong. As a parent, teacher or coach, you might notice a child's weight loss, or you may notice more subtle changes over time, including:

  • cutting out certain types of foods
  • refusing to eat things he/she used to love or eating in secret
  • wearing baggy clothes
  • excessive exercise/activity
  • pre-occupation with food  

Because food is needed for a happy, healthy brain, you may also notice mood changes, changes in school performance, or changes in sleep habits.  

If you have a teenage daughter who has had menstrual periods in the past and now doesn't, this can be an indication of an eating disorder (or other medical issues) and should always prompt a medical evaluation.

To help determine if your son or daughter is at risk, here are some questions to consider asking:

  1. Do you make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
  2. Do you worry you have lost control over how much you eat?
  3. Have you recently lost more than 14 pounds in a three-month period?
  4. Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?
  5. Would you say that food dominates your life?

Eating disorders are very scary and affect the whole family, especially when the patient is a child or teen. But, there is help. Your primary care provider is a good first resource if you have any concerns about your child's eating and weight.


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