Identifying eating disorders in teenagers can be upsetting and even frustrating. Young adults may attempt to hide their symptoms from parents and caretakers, making spotting the signs and securing appropriate help for them challenging. With this in mind, it is crucial to be aware of the indications of an eating disorder and how to help.
Types of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are a widespread problem amongst young adults. There are several types of eating disorders, some of which are clinically recognised and others that are not. Below, we share some eating disorders to be aware of.
Anorexia nervosa is characterised by a fear of gaining weight and an obsession with being thin. People with anorexia often try to lose weight by heavily restricting calories, over-exercising, and fasting. They may also set themselves rules surrounding what they can and cannot eat and have a distorted perception of their appearance, also known as body dysmorphia.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
ARFID is an eating disorder in which a person avoids or restricts certain foods or food categories from their diet. They may avoid specific foods for various reasons, including being particularly sensitive to a type of food or having had a negative experience with a particular food, such as vomiting after eating it.
As with many other eating disorders, ARFID can reduce calorie consumption, affecting teenagers and young adults’ growth and mental performance.
People with bulimia nervosa follow a binge and purge cycle. They eat lots of food in one sitting and then attempt to purge them from their bodies, either by using laxatives, obsessive exercising, or making themselves vomit.
During a binge, people who have bulimia are often unable to control how much or how quickly they eat, which can be emotionally distressing.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
People with BED regularly consume large amounts of food, even if they are not hungry. Binges can be upsetting, especially as those suffering from this disorder often find it difficult to stop and experience shame and guilt surrounding their behaviour. In contrast to bulimia nervosa, those suffering from a BED don’t purge and may become overweight.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)
EDNOS refers to an eating disorder that may not fit all the requirements of a specific disorder to receive a formal diagnosis. However, it is still a dangerous and debilitating condition.
In some instances, EDNOS can give rise to symptoms from numerous eating disorders. However, some teens and young adults may exhibit many, but not all, symptoms of one specific disorder. For example, someone may display all of the signs of bulimia nervosa but at a lower frequency.
Orthorexia is not recognised as an eating disorder in a clinical setting; however, it is similar to anorexia. Those suffering from orthorexia often categorise food as pure or impure and focus on exclusively eating healthy foods.
They may also exercise excessively in a bid to be healthier, but this focus can become unhealthy. For example, they may end up cutting out essential food groups, such as carbohydrates or fats, to improve their health.
Symptoms of an Eating Disorder
The signs of an eating disorder vary and often depend on the type of condition experienced. However, there are some general signs to look out for in a young person:
- Obsessive exercising
- Wearing baggy clothing
- Wanting to eat alone
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Talking about feeling guilty after meals
- Complaining about feeling cold
- Using meal replacements instead of food
- Wanting to cook but refusing to eat what has been made
- ‘Forgetting’ their lunch when they go to school
- Never being hungry and wanting to skip meals
- Becoming upset about their appearance
In the case of bulimia, young people may develop scars on their fingers or the backs of their hands or have problems with their teeth due to making themselves vomit. They may also visit the bathroom quickly after meals.
What Can Influence An Eating Disorder?
Like many other mental health disorders, young adults can develop an eating disorder for several reasons. Although there may be no one cause, factors can include:
- Pressure from the media
- Mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
- Having a family member with an eating disorder
- Distressing life events
The Next Steps
If you think a young adult may have an eating disorder, there are certain steps that you can take to help them:
- Educate yourself – By learning more about eating disorders, you will understand what is happening to the young adult in your life. Though this will not cure them, it will show them that you are there for them.
- Talk to them – Approach the person you are concerned about and ask if they would like to talk about anything going on in their lives. If they don’t want to talk, let them know that you are there for them when they are ready.
- Avoid criticism – Although it can be challenging to understand why someone has an eating disorder, avoid asking them why they are letting it consume their life and refrain from commenting on their body in any way. This is not constructive as the person suffering may view themselves differently from others.
- Stop discussing food – Everyone talks about diets and complains about how they no longer fit into their old clothes from time to time. However, this is not constructive for someone with an eating disorder. Steer conversations to healthier topics that do not touch on food or bodies.
- Seek help – Eating disorders in young adults can become severe problems later in life. Seek professional help early to support them in overcoming any issues before they worsen. At The Wave, we specialise in treating young adults suffering from all kinds of eating disorders, providing residential treatment and one-to-one care if necessary.
Seeing a young adult or teenager suffer from an eating disorder is highly concerning. Although you may feel powerless, there are ways to help. At The Wave, we have designed treatment plans specifically for young people. Each plan is personalised to their needs and can include residential, inpatient, and one-to-one care as needed.
Eating disorders are complex and can stem from many underlying conditions. At The Wave, we take a trauma-focused approach to heal the whole body mentally, physically, and spiritually. We aim to build a solid foundation for long-term recovery, enabling our young people to lead healthy, happy lives.
We understand that early intervention in the treatment of eating disorders is vital. Considering this, please don’t hesitate to contact our team today to see how we can help you.
Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.