Eating disorders are complex, and affect all different kinds of people, but
adolescents and teenagers are most at risk. There is no one identified cause of eating
disorders when it comes to teens; instead studies cite a number of possible factors, such as
psychological problems, genetic predispositions, family relationships, and sociocultural
issues, as potentially contributing to the development of eating disorders in teens.
Types of Eating Disorders
Adolescent and teen eating disorders are on the rise, especially when it comes to the
three eating disorders most common amongst young people – anorexia, bulimia, and binge-
Medically referred to as anorexia nervosa, this eating disorder is defined
by the associated desire to be thin and intense fear of weight gain. Teens with
anorexia tend to go to extreme lengths to avoid weight gain, including restricting
Medically referred to as bulimia nervosa, this eating disorder is
characterized by episodes of bingeing (eating large quantities of food in a short
period of time) and purging (compensating for food intake through self-induced
vomiting, use of laxatives, etc.) behaviors.
Characterized by a sense of loss of control around food,
resulting in bingeing. For teens that suffer from binge-eating disorder, there are
often resulting feelings of immense guilt and/or shame.
Obviously, there are other types of eating disorders, but anorexia, bulimia, and
binge-eating disorder affect adolescents and teenagers at the highest rates.
Risk Factors for Eating Disorders in Teens
Although there is a correlation between the desire for the “ideal” body and eating
disorders, there still remains no consensus regarding the precise cause of eating disorders.
Being a long studied area of medical and mental health research, it seems eating disorders
result from one or more biological, social, behavioral, genetic, or environmental factors.
Teenagers are the age population most susceptible to eating disorders. Teenagers
also tend to deal with the most detrimental side effects of eating disorders as adolescence
is a time period of rapid growth and maturation, and malnutrition and vitamin deficiency
can interfere with normal development. While it is possible for any teen to acquire an
eating disorder, there are certain identifiable factors that make it more likely to occur for
Family history and genetics
Genes are thought to play a big part in increasing
one’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder. This means adolescents and
teenagers are at an increased risk if they have a close relative who has suffered
from an eating disorder.
Research shows a significant subset of youth with eating
disorders also meet criteria for an anxiety-related disorder (i.e. – generalized
anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, etc.).
Life changes and transitions
Certain life changes and events can cause emotional
distress and feelings of instability. Major life changes include moving, loss or death
of a loved one, relationship deterioration, etc.
Adolescents and teenagers who have experienced abuse (emotional,
physical, or sexual) are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. Research
indicates a strong correlation between past trauma and eating disorders.
History of dieting
In this day and age in America, weight loss is frequently met
with positive reinforcement. Many youth are motivated by these affirmations
around dieting, sometimes becoming excessive, which can (often very quickly) lead
to the development of an eating disorder.
Young people who are involved in certain
extracurricular activities or sports are at an increased risk for suffering from an
eating disorder. While competitive sports can be wonderful for a teenager’s health
and confidence, they also often put huge emphasis on physical shape (body shape
and size). This can cause individuals to become body-focused, and unfortunately
for some, this can progress into an eating disorder.
Recent studies have cited type-one (insulin-dependent) diabetes as a risk
factor for eating disorders. In fact, one study showed approximately one-quarter of
women diagnosed with type-one diabetes will develop an eating disorder.
Tendency toward perfectionism – perfectionism, which is one of the strongest risk
factors for eating disorders in teens, is the trait of setting unrealistically high
expectations for oneself. Because “perfect” is impossible to achieve, those who
struggle with perfectionism are bound to feel poorly about themselves, experience
guilt/shame, etc., and often turning toward an eating disorder.
Body image is how a person feels about his or her body shape
and size, and how one personally experiences being in his or her physical body.
Sadly, it is not uncommon (especially in adolescence) for people to dislike their
physical appearance. While it is understandable why some with high levels of body
dissatisfaction develop eating disorders, those with eating disorders actually end
up reporting even higher levels of body dissatisfaction.
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders
Every teenager is unique. When two teens suffer from the same eating disorder, chances
are what caused the eating disorder is different for both. Knowing the possible warning
signs of eating disorders can be helpful in identifying a problem and seeking early
Physical symptoms of anorexia include: loss of menstruation, cold extremities,
brittle nails, lightheadedness, hair loss, significant weight loss
Behavioral symptoms of anorexia include: strange eating habits or rituals around
food, hiding food, expressing fear of weight gain, refusal to eat certain foods (or
entire food groups), weighing self frequently, social isolation, denial of hunger,
Emotional symptoms of anorexia include: depression, increased need for approval,
anxiety, easily irritated, low self-esteem, lack of motivation to engage in activities
Physical symptoms of bulimia include: repeated episodes of eating large amounts of
food in a short period of time, use of compensatory behaviors (self-induced
vomiting, over-exercise, diuretic or laxative use, swollen glands or roundness in the
jaw, lightheadedness, dental problems, mouth ulcers, chest pain, heart palpitations,
calluses on the back of the hand, electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, swelling in the
hands and feet, constipation
Behavioral symptoms of bulimia include: frequent trips to the bathroom, extreme
habits around food (strict dieting and then overeating), hiding food, constant
engagement in exercise, talking about diets/calories/food/etc., social isolation,
Emotional symptoms of bulimia include: low self-esteem, extreme irritability,
increase in negative self-talk, increased need for approval from others, depression,
Physical symptoms of binge-eating disorder: excessive lethargy, changes in sleep
patterns, rapid weight gain, feeling bloated or constipated
Behavioral symptoms of binge-eating disorder: unexplained disappearance of food,
secretive behavior around food, social isolation, erratic behavior, self-harm
Emotional symptoms of binge-eating disorder: distorted body image, low self-
esteem, depression, anxiety, sensitivity to comments around food, dieting, and/or
body shape/size, preoccupation or obsession with food
Eating disorders can cause many serious symptoms and side effects. Fortunately,
eating disorders are treatable, and the earlier treatment is sought, the better the prognosis.
The level of treatment appropriate for a young person is determined based on the severity
of his or her eating disorder.
For more information about residential treatment for your teen, contact Polaris Teen Center at 1-844-836-0222 or firstname.lastname@example.org