What’s Eating Your Teen? When Weight Control Gets Out of Control

Posted on December 30, 2012 by VITAL WorkLife

Updated June 16, 2021

"You can never be too rich or too thin," is a statement no physician or counselor who works with teens will endorse. You can definitely be too thin—particularly if you're suffering from an eating disorder.

About 3% of US teens are affected by an eating disorder according to a 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health—and most do not receive treatment for their specific eating condition1.

What are Eating Disorders?

An eating disorder is a potentially fatal illness marked by serious extremes in diet. Most eating disorders begin in the late teens or early adulthood—and are 9 times more likely to affect girls than boys. The three most-common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.

Anorexia nervosa: Teens with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight—even when they are painfully thin or starving. Weight control becomes an obsession. They have an intense fear of weight gain and refuse to maintain a normal or healthy weight. Symptoms that may develop as a result of long-term starvation include:

  • Thinning of the bones, brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin, growth of fine hair all over the body
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Damage to the heart, brain and kidneys
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • Lethargy, sluggishness or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility

Bulimia nervosa: Teens with bulimia nervosa alternate between "binging" (eating unusually large amounts of food) and "purging" (forced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercise or a combination of these behaviors). As a result, their weight is typically perceived as healthy or just slightly overweight.

Bulimic behavior is usually done in secret and is often accompanied by feelings of disgust or shame. The binge eating and purging cycle may happen anywhere from several times a week to many times a day. Over time, other symptoms may include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Worn tooth enamel, and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
  • Acid reflux and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to heart attack

With a binge-eating disorder the teen loses control over his or her eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise or fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese. People with binge-eating disorder who are obese are at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. They also experience guilt, shame and distress about their binge eating, which can lead to more binge eating.

Risk Factors

There is no known cause, but kids in athletics, dance and performing arts are at higher risk for eating disorders—often because of pressure put on them by parents, coaches, peers, the media and even themselves to lose weight. Coming from homes where other family members have eating disorders, are obese or suffer from mood disorders put teens at additional risk.

Dieting seems to be a major risk factor. Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don't diet, according to a 2005 study2.

Parents may be able to avoid a lifetime of problems by focusing on healthy eating and exercise for fun rather than on dieting to achieve an unattainable or un-maintainable weight.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

Watch for these possible red flags:

  • Has your teen been skipping meals or making excuses for not eating?
  • Has your teen suddenly gained or lost weight?
  • Does your teen complain about being fat or only see flaws when she or he looks in the mirror?
  • Have your teen's food preferences changed dramatically?
  • Is your teen reluctant to eat in public?

If you're seeing any of these signs, it may be time to seek treatment.

Early Treatment is Key!

Eating disorders rarely go away on their own—and become harder to treat the longer they've had to take hold. An eating disorder is both a physical and emotional problem so a doctor, dietician and counselor may work in partnership to help your teen establish healthier ways of eating and thinking about their weight.

Depending on the severity of symptoms, hospitalization may be needed. Antidepressant medications are often used in combination with counseling.

If you see dramatic changes in your teen's weight or eating habits, talk to her or him about it immediately! Not sure about how to talk to your teen about eating disorders? Nurseline can help!

Concerned About Eating Disorders? Contact Nurseline!

If you have questions about that you or someone in your family is suffering from an eating disorder, Nurseline can help. Call Nurseline any time of the day or night if you'd like to know more about problems associated with eating disorders. Members, contact us to receive your Nurseline information. 

Contact VITAL WorkLife at 800.383.1908 or access resources through the VITAL WorkLife App


1 http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2011/most-teens-with-eating-disorders-go-without-treatment.shtml

2 Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I'm, Like, SO Fat!. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 5

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