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Eating Disorders Health Center

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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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

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.

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