Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Signs Your Teenager Has an Eating Disorder

Signs that might seem subtle out of context can be real eye-openers when connecting the dots.

In honor of Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 23 to 27), we spoke to Erin McGinty, Clinical Director at the Monte Nido Treatment Center in Irvington, to help us identify four signs that your teenager might be experiencing disordered eating.

Changes in Food Intake or Eating Patterns: Eating as a family at least once a day can help parents monitor their kids’ eating habits. It is important to pay attention to what they like and dislike as well as the extent of their appetite in case there is ever a significant alteration in these patterns. McGinty offers some examples, saying that “eating more or less food, as well as eliminating certain foods or food groups from their diets” can be identified as shifts in eating patterns.

Significant Weight Changes: Weight changes can occur in people that do not have an eating disorder. They could, however, be an indication that your teenager has been altering their diet drastically. “Not everyone with an eating disorder is underweight or overweight, but significant changes in weight either way is also a symptom of struggling with an eating disorder,” McGinty says. Be conscious of how your teen responds to food intake. Do they usually gain and lose weight rapidly? Are they going through a growth spurt? Or is there something odd about how their weight has changed?

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Self-esteem Association to Weight and Appearance: It is human nature to worry about how we look from time to time. Yet, if it seems as if your teen’s self-love always fades whenever they look in the mirror or whenever they feel like they’ve eaten too much, it might be a sign of an underlying problem. A teenager’s self-esteem can become “pretty heavily influenced by their weight, shape, or appearance” if they have an eating disorder, says McGinty.

Mood Changes: It might be a tough job to discern the differences between hormonal mood swings and an alteration in mood due to an eating disorder. McGinty says the changes can include “irritability, an increase in social isolation, and an increase in depression or anxiety.” Monte Nido’s National Clinical Development Officer Doug Bunnell offers more insight on the subject, affirming that when anything regarding “eating, weight, shape, or exercise starts to interfere with someone’s interest in other priorities such as work, school, social relationships, and recreation…it’s a sign that these issues have reached a point of real concern.”

But what can you do if your teenager is showing any of these signs? Do not despair; the solution lies no further than your primary care physician. If you let your doctor know about the symptoms you have noticed, he can run a complete examination. The effects on an eating disorder will be reflected in lab exams, and with this information in hand the doctor can refer your teenager to eating disorder specialists. These might include nutritionists and therapists.

There’s one last, and very important thing you can do: talk to your teen. McGinty insists there will be better results if a non-judgmental and non-accusatory approach is taken. If your teenager knows you are there for them, and that you have become aware of some changes in their eating patterns or any other of the signs discussed above, they might be willing to have an open dialog with you. McGinty also recommends the National Eating Disorder Association as a resource for parents, coaches, and educators.

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