Can Poor Nutrition Lead to an Eating Disorder in Teens?

When your son or daughter is suffering from an eating disorder, it is completely frightening for parents and loved ones to see the effects on their children. However, some families struggle to understand the dangers associated with an eating disorder in teens and how to help. Further, when thinking about an eating disorder, often times anorexia is first to come to mind. However, there are several other types of eating disorders that teenagers could suffer from including bulimia, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia. A number of factors could cause an eating disorder in teens – poor body image, low self-esteem, or malnutrition are some reasons. Even following seemingly nutritious diets and eating too healthy could drive teens to eating disorders. That is why it is so important for parents to teach proper nutrition for teens given the vast number of diet programs and food brands which market false information.

Some parents ask, “Are eating disorders mental illnesses?” When faced with the daily struggles that come with anorexia in teenage girls and boys, and the physical damage being done to healthy bodies, there is no question. It is evident that eating disorders are mental illnesses that require professional help and support.

Teenage Nutrition Statistics

According to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the following nutrition statistics are true about the eating habits of American teenagers:

  1. Typical diets exceed the recommended intake levels or limits in four categories: calories from solid fats and added sugars, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat.
  2. Americans eat less than the recommended amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, dairy products, and oils.
  3. Empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of total daily calories and half of these empty calories come from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.
  4. In the United States, food-borne agents affect 1 out of 6 individuals and cause approximately 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths each year.
  5. US per capita consumption of total fat increased from approximately 57 pounds in 1980 to 78 pounds in 2009.

Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that so many teenagers suffer from nutrition-based health issues. Moreover, this overall lack of nutrition is driving the obesity epidemic in the United States and contributing to a rise in eating disorders.

Connection Between Poor Nutrition and an Eating Disorder in Teens

Considering the teenage nutrition statistics proving many teens have poor diets, consisting of addictive sugars, it is not surprising that sometimes overindulging can escalate into a bigger issue. For example, teen binge-eating disorder is characterized as compulsively and rapidly eating a large amount of food to the point of discomfort. Unlike what many consider an eating disorder, those teens who suffer from binge eating disorders maintain a normal weight or may even be overweight.

On the other hand, some teens are fixated on the culture of unrealistic body image and become weight obsessed. This can sometimes be disguised as being health conscious in what a teen puts in their body and how much they exercise. But it can get to a level of obsession and eating too healthy whereby a teen may not be getting enough calories to function properly. This can lead to another eating disorder called orthorexia, where a teen is unable to eat anything but a narrow group of foods due to a healthy eating obsession. Other types of eating disorders that those that are weigh-obsessed may develop include bulimia, also called binge-purge syndrome, and anorexia.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexic Teens

One of the most common eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, commonly known as simply anorexia. Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness and is characterized as eating so little to the point of starvation.

Some of the symptoms of anorexia in teenagers include the following:

  1. A distorted body image
  2. An obsession with weighing themselves
  3. Low body weight for their height
  4. A refusal to eat with family or in front of other people
  5. Skipping most meals and self-starvation
  6. Extreme weight fluctuations
  7. Dental cavities and the erosion of tooth enamel
  8. Loss of hair and broken nails
  9. Excessive exercising
  10. Absent or missing menstrual periods

More specifically, from a gender perspective, weight obsession is more common among women than men:

Recommendations to Improve Nutrition for Teens

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans was published to help Americans eat a healthier diet. It focuses on the implementation of small shifts in the eating habits with the goal of making major health changes. By slowly changing eating patterns of both food and drink, nutrition can be improved over time.

By parents raising awareness of dietary recommendations and teenagers embracing healthy eating patterns, long-term health can be improved. Consuming healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, lean meats, seafood, other protein is at the core of the recommendations.

Five overarching 2015-2020 guidelines are as follows:

  1. Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
  2. Focus on variety, nutrient-dense foods, and serving sizes.
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
  4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
  5. Support healthy eating patterns for everyone, establishing positive habits.

Ultimately, the hope is that good nutrition for teens improves physical and mental health. By replacing obesity-oriented food patterns with healthy nutrition, a parent shows a teen how to avoid weight gain in a positive framework. Thus, avoiding the development of an eating disorder in teens. By improving mental health and raising awareness, mental illness becomes less likely.

The Treatment of Eating Disorders for Anorexic Teens

It is important for parents to understand the difficulty in treating eating disorders, particularly the psychological effects of anorexia. This is especially true for teenage girls who oftentimes believe that their body image and self-worth are intrinsically connected, and may go to extreme, sometime fatal measures. By accessing a team of doctors, nutritionists, and therapists, sustained recovery is a legitimate outcome.

Treatment plans for anorexic teens may include the following:

  1. Nutrition Therapy
    Nutrition therapy helps a teenager reach and maintain healthy body weight. Often, residential treatment is a necessary part of recovery. Physical recovery is a crucial step in treating the mental health side of an eating disorder.
  2. Psychotherapy
    Talk therapy with a trained therapist helps an anorexic teen change harmful thoughts or behaviors. By talking about feelings and how they heighten the psychological effects of anorexia, progress is possible. Such counseling often involves the family as well.
  3. Support Groups
    Anorexia in teenage girls often requires support groups where identification and commonality help the healing process. In such groups, teens share their stories of the challenges they face. Also, the promotion of good nutrition for teens finds a home.
  4. Psychoactive Medications
    Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications help some anorexic teens improve the depression and anxiety symptoms that often go along with the eating disorder.

By participating in these types of professional treatment plans, those teens suffering from eating disorders can learn the right tools to help them eat and exercise in normal ways again. In addition, the National Eating Disorders Association has a confidential eating disorder helpline that is available Monday-Friday to speak with a trained volunteer regarding an eating disorder in teens. By seeking help, a teenager’s future can be put on a healthy, positive path to long-term recovery.

Photo by Min An from Pexels