Teen Eating Disorder Treatment
Eating disorders can be extremely complex, especially in teens. It is extremely important to find the right treatment option quickly when disordered eating is suspected; most conditions that fall under this spectrum are progressive and worsen over time. Understanding what an eating disorder is, and the many ways in which they can manifest, can help to ensure that you get help faster.
“Eating Disorder” is a nonspecific umbrella term that encompasses Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge-Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, Diabulimia, and Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). While all of these conditions involve disordered eating, each manifests with very specific symptoms.
What Does A Teen Eating Disorder Look Like?
Eating disorders, and even disordered eating without the presence of a specific diagnosis, can be extremely challenging to diagnose. Patients often hide symptoms extremely well until the point that physical symptoms and mental health struggles become severe enough that they can no longer hide them. In fact, intentionally hiding eating is one of the most common symptoms in disorders like Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.
It is also important to note that not every person with a different or odd diet and eating schedule is suffering from an actual eating disorder. Eating too much, too little, or at odd times may just be a sign of a fast or slow metabolism or a busy schedule. Similarly, being very thin or large does not necessarily imply Binge-Eating Disorder or Anorexia. Some teens stay very thin despite eating plenty of calories, while others seem to gain weight very easily. Physical health, genetics, age, activity levels, and hormone balance all play a role. What matters most is the behavior and whether it qualifies as “disordered.”
Some symptoms do seem to manifest in most teens who experience eating disorders:
- Tooth and gum issues, often from vomiting, for people with Bulimia
- Gastritis, stomach pain, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal symptoms
- Phobias and fears of eating in front of family members or the public
- Obsessive thoughts about calories, food, or ritualistic behavior
- Secret eating, binging, and purging
- Poor body image and self-esteem
Signs of a Teen Eating Disorder
Denying self food when hungry
Eating far beyond simply feeling full
Excessive time in the bathroom after meals
Feeling guilty or shameful about eating
Obsessing over exercise and “losing calories
Becoming obsessed with losing weight
The Different Types of Eating Disorders
Teen Anorexia Nervosa - Teens who are suffering from Anorexia Nervosa often go to extremes in an attempt to shed pounds and become thinner. In some cases, the person affected may reduce calories to just a few hundred calories per day or less. Others go without food at all for days, drinking only water or cutting back on intake entirely. Patients with Anorexia struggle with body image, and may also struggle with body dysmorphia. Despite being remarkably thin, they continue to see themselves as being heavier than they really are. Obsessive thoughts about appearance and weight constantly intrude upon their thoughts, day after day, making it virtually impossible to escape the cycle without help. Anorexia Nervosa is also associated with other behaviors, like being secretive about calorie-counting, weighing, exercising, or purging. Teens may insist they’re only trying to stay healthy, yet engage in destructive behavior to lose weight in private. In rare cases, this behavior may continue without anyone being aware until weight loss is life-threatening.
Teen Bulimia Nervosa - Like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia causes obsessive thoughts about losing weight and body appearance. However, the behaviors associated with this disorder are slightly different. Teens with bulimia often binge on food excessively, and then induce vomiting in private to remove the food from the stomach before digestion. They may use laxatives, enemas, syrup of ipecac, and diuretics to produce weight loss to the point of electrolyte imbalance and physical illness. Binging is typically a difficult-to-control compulsion; sufferers often report feeling as if they had no choice but to binge. Many teens feel intense guilt or shame after purging, causing them to binge to self-sooth, which perpetuates the cycle. As with Anorexia Nervosa, patients often refuse help.
Binge Eating Disorder – In Binge Eating Disorder, teens regularly eat very large amounts of food in an extremely short period of time – often thousands of calories in just a few hours. Binge eaters may feel “out of control” or unable to prevent themselves from eating, even if they become full to the point of discomfort. They may eat both when hungry and when compulsive thoughts strike, either to self-soothe against emotional pain, to reduce stress, or even to escape and experience pleasure. Because most binge eaters don’t purge or restrict calories, weight gain is common, but dual diagnoses is possible and isn’t really rare. Most importantly, binge eating leaves the sufferer obsessed with the rituals associated with food, eating, and overindulging, leading to guilt and shame that in turn causes more binging.
What Are The Causes Of Teen Eating Disorders?
Diet and human behavior are both exceptionally complex. Just take a quick look at any fashion magazine; girls and boys alike are pushed to lose weight, become thinner, have the perfect body, and be in shape. That’s just one of the reasons why misconceptions about what constitutes a “healthy diet” or “healthy exercise” are so common. Confusing messages from the media and pressure from peers, as well as a predisposition to conditions like Depression, Anxiety, and OCD, can elevate what is simply unhealthy occasional behavior to extreme levels that bring on self-destructive behavior, shame, and a greater risk of injurious behavior from disordered eating.
We also know that Body Dysmorphic Disorder and hormone imbalance can play a role in the development of eating disorders. Other environmental factors may also play a role, including:
- High pressure to perform (e.g., sports, modeling, ballet)
- Very high stress levels at home or at school
- Instability and constant stress in early life
- Bullying in social spheres
- Low self-esteem or self-image
- Familial instability
- Childhood abuse and trauma
- Lack of autonomy or control
teens in America have an eating disorder
of eating disorder sufferers do not seek treatment due to feelings of guilt, shame, or lack of access
of teen eating disorder patients improve with intervention and regular treatment
What Types of Teen Eating Disorder Treatment Are Available?
Medical Care and Nutrition
Eating disorders are often severe, and may escalate from minor to extreme in a very short period of time. When they do manifest, they can cause devastating health problems, including both physical and mental health conditions. The best way to treat teen eating disorders is by addressing the whole person – body and mind.
Teen eating disorder treatment must first restore physical health by addressing weight loss, weight gain, and physical conditions. This process starts with therapy to teach healthier eating habits and practices, both instead of and in spite of obsessive thoughts. It is extremely common for teens with eating disorders to resist the process; this shouldn’t be seen as “being difficult.” It is simply a symptom of the eating disorder and obsessive thoughts. However, it does mean that teens benefit most from residential or inpatient treatment methods.
There is no medication to cure or fix an eating disorder. However, certain mental health medications may help to ease stress, obsessive thoughts, and compulsions, making it easier to cope with mood issues. This includes antidepressants, including SNRIs and SSRIs, as well as mood stabilizing drugs. Medication is almost always an adjunct to therapy to help teens combat self-harm, negative thinking, shame, and the need to restrict or purge.
Psychotherapy, known simply as “therapy,” helps teens address habits, behaviors, and emotions in a healthier manner, including obsessive thoughts, the need to purge, the need to exercise, feeling “low” and feeling anxious. It also aids teens in developing healthier coping skills to reduce the impact and influence the eating disorder has on behavior. By developing better coping skills, teens create a solid foundation of support to address the underlying causes and beliefs related to their eating disorder.
Therapy also addresses the teen’s relationship to food, including how thinking may be distorted or why the relationship became unmanageable in the first place. This includes therapeutic strategies to eliminate or reduce inadequacy, shame, lack of self-worth, anxiety, and/or stress, as well as the need for control.
Teen Eating Disorder Treatment at Paradigm San Francisco
Teen eating disorder treatment often begins with seeking medical care to restore physical health and ensure the teen is in a safe, healing environment. Often, this process starts with residential treatment. From there, eating disorder specialists empower healing by creating a long-term plan to address eating habits and the relationship to food as well as overall wellness. This includes learning what it means to eat well and how to regulate emotions or cope with compulsions of binging, purging, and other eating disorder symptoms.
Dedicated treatment facilities like Paradigm San Francisco are an excellent first step for teens who may be suffering from eating disorders. The main goal is to get teens the help they need while preventing any further harm in the process. At Paradigm, we have medical staff and monitoring equipment available to help teens start the difficult process of treatment.
I developed an eating disorder that led to me getting checked in to Paradigm Malibu. I was being bullied at school by other girls because of my weight. The biggest thing that Paradigm Malibu helped me with was creating a strategy for boosting my self-confidence and changing my mindset. I no longer look at myself and see someone overweight. Now I look in the mirror and I see someone healthy, strong, and confident.
– Melinda H.
Frequently Asked Questions About Teen Eating Disorders
What if other people think I have an eating disorder, but I don’t?
Only a medical professional can diagnose you with an eating disorder, but you should remember that eating disorders can often change the way you think about your behavior. What may feel healthy and right for you may actually be a sign of disordered eating or a negative relationship to food. If friends and family are concerned, going to a therapist or seeing your doctor for an official exam and/or diagnosis is the best way to find out the truth, especially if you’re struggling. Remember: there is no shame in seeking help.
What if it’s something I can control?
Eating disorders cause disordered thinking, especially around the topic of control. Your thoughts may trick you into feeling as if you are in control and can stop at any time, but like addiction, gaining control alone is often very difficult. Having an eating disorder is much more than just skipping a few meals to lose a few pounds; it can cause life-threatening physical health issues that can be painful and even debilitating. Even if your symptoms aren’t yet severe, they may become severe in the future, so getting help early is important.
Some teens fear losing control over decisions or behaviors if they enter teen eating disorder treatment. Rest assured, the goal of therapy is to empower you to become healthy, not to take away your personal autonomy. Instead, it’s about helping you become a better “you.”