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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.


Anorexia can lead to several serious health problems. Those problems include:

  • damage to major organs, especially the brain, heart and kidneys
  • irregular heartbeat
  • lowered blood pressure, pulse, body temperature, and breathing rates
  • sensitivity to cold
  • thinning of bones

Anorexia is fatal in about one out of every 10 cases. The most common causes of death include cardiac arrest, electrolyte imbalance, and suicide.

Treating anorexia

The first aim of treatment is to bring the young person back to normal weight and eating habits. Hospitalization, sometimes for weeks, may be necessary. In cases of extreme or life-threatening malnutrition, tube or intravenous feeding may be required.

Long-term treatment addresses psychological issues. Treatments include:

  • antidepressant medication
  • behavioral therapy
  • psychotherapy
  • support groups

Bulimia in children and teens

Like children and teens with anorexia, bulimic young people also fear weight gain and feel extremely unhappy with their bodies.

They will repeatedly eat too much food in a short amount of time. Often the child or teen senses a loss of control. Feeling disgusted and ashamed after overeating, young people with bulimia try to prevent weight gain by inducing vomiting or using laxatives, diet pills, diuretics, or enemas. After purging the food, they feel relieved.

Doctors make a diagnosis of bulimia after a person has two or more episodes per week for at least three months.

People with bulimia usually fluctuate within a normal weight range, although they may be overweight, too. As many as one out of every 25 females will have bulimia in their lifetime.

Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • abusing drugs and alcohol
  • abusing laxatives and other treatments to prevent weight gain
  • anxiety
  • bingeing on large amounts of food
  • eating in secret or having unusual eating habits
  • excessive exercise
  • mood swings
  • overemphasis on physical appearance
  • regularly spending time in the bathroom after eating
  • sadness
  • scarring on knuckles from using fingers to induce vomiting
  • unusual interest in food
  • vomiting after eating

Complications can be serious. Stomach acids from chronic vomiting can cause:

  • damage to tooth enamel
  • inflammation of the esophagus
  • swelling of the salivary glands in the cheeks

In addition, bulimia can also lower blood levels of potassium. This can lead to dangerous, abnormal heart rhythms.

Treating bulimia

Treatment aims to break the binge-and-purge cycle. Treatments may include the following:

  • antidepressants medication
  • behavior modification
  • individual, family, or group therapy
  • nutritional counseling

Binge eating in children and teens

Binge eating is similar to bulimia. It includes chronic, out-of-control eating of large amounts in a short time, even to the point of discomfort. However, binge eaters do not purge the food through vomiting or other means. As a result, they tend to become overweight or obese.

Binge eaters may be struggling to handle their emotions. Anger, worry, stress, sadness, or boredom may trigger a binge. Often, binge eaters are upset about overeating and may become depressed.

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