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Eating Disorders in Children and Teens

Eating disorders can cause serious health problems for children and teens. Here is what to watch for.
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WebMD Feature

Eating disorders in children and teens cause serious changes in eating habits that can lead to major, even life threatening health problems. The three main types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia, a condition in which a child refuses to eat adequate calories out of an intense and irrational fear of becoming fat
  • Bulimia, a condition in which a child grossly overeats (binging) and then purges the food by vomiting or using laxatives to prevent weight gain
  • Binge eating, a condition in which a child may gorge rapidly on food, but without purging

In children and teens, eating disorders can overlap. For example, some children alternate between periods of anorexia and bulimia.

Eating disorders typically develop during adolescence or early adulthood. However, they can start in childhood, too. Females are much more vulnerable. Only an estimated 5% to 15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male. With binge eating, the number rises to 35% male.

What causes eating disorders?

Doctors aren't certain what cause eating disorders. They suspect a combination of biological, behavioral, and social factors. For instance, young people may be influenced by cultural images that favor bodies too underweight to be healthy. Also, many children and teens with eating disorders struggle with one or more of the following problems:

  • distress
  • fear of becoming overweight
  • feelings of helplessness
  • low self-esteem

To cope with these issues, children and teens may adopt harmful eating habits. In fact, eating disorders often go hand-in-hand with other psychiatric problems such as the following:

  • anxiety disorders
  • depression
  • substance abuse

The dangers of eating disorders

Eating disorders in children and teens can lead to a host of serious physical problems and even death. If you spot any of the signs of the eating disorders listed below, call your child's doctor right away. Eating disorders are not overcome through sheer willpower. Your child will need treatment to help restore normal weight and eating habits. Treatment also addresses underlying psychological issues. Remember that the best results occur when eating disorders are treated at the earliest stages.

Anorexia in children and teens

Children and teens with anorexia have a distorted body image. People with anorexia view themselves as heavy, even when they are dangerously skinny. They are obsessed with being thin and refuse to maintain even a minimally normal weight.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly one out of every 25 girls and women will have anorexia in their lifetime. Most will deny that they have an eating disorder.

Symptoms of anorexia include:

  • anxiety, depression, perfectionism, or being highly self-critical
  • dieting even when one is thin or emaciated
  • excessive or compulsive exercising
  • intense fear of becoming fat, even though one is underweight
  • menstruation that becomes infrequent or stops
  • rapid weight loss, which the person may try to conceal with loose clothing
  • strange eating habits, such as avoiding meals, eating in secret, monitoring every bite of food, or eating only certain foods in small amounts
  • unusual interest in food

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