teenage girls

How to recognize the signs of eating disorders

by Dr. Sheri Findlay, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, McMaster Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Program

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that usually begin in teens, but can also appear in pre-adolescents. Although they can occur in boys, about 90% of sufferers are girls. Families, teachers and coaches should be aware of early warning signs. Catching the disease early can improve the recovery process and reduce the long term impact on the young person and their family.

Eating disorders symptoms

The most common way for an eating disorder to begin is with a deliberate attempt to lose weight. The reason is often a desire to look better for a special event (such as a vacation or prom) or due to comments from others about appearance. Witnessing or experiencing bullying can trigger this behaviour.

Scale with tape measure and apple implying weight loss

Parents should watch for:

  • Rapid or steady weight loss
  • Skipping meals
  • Avoidance of high calorie foods
  • Frequent visits to the bathroom after meals
  • Episodes of over eating
  • Avoiding eating with family and friends
  • New onset of pickiness around foods
  • Obsession with nutritional content and burning calories by exercising

These symptoms are often noticeable for parents. However, some teens will try to hide their symptoms out of fear they’ll be forced to stop.

Other situations

In some situations, eating disorders can be harder to spot, as not all young people have a desire to lose weight. Instead, they want to “get in shape” or “be healthy”. In which cases they’ll increase their exercise or change their eating patterns to accomplish those goals. This behaviour is considered an eating disorder when the young person becomes unable to function and maintain balance in their life due to their preoccupation with exercise and nutrition. In these cases, parents will notice:

  • A rigid obsession with exercise
  • An inflexible approach to eating
  • Placing too much importance on “healthy eating”

runner tying her shoe

Another scenario is the young person who experiences trouble eating or weight loss due to symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea, or food intolerances. This can be a difficult scenario for the family, and sometimes the doctor to sort out. If the persistent digestive symptoms are unexplained and leading to weight loss, particularly in teenage girls, it could represent an eating disorder.

Don’t delay in contacting your family doctor

Parents worried about a child with a possible eating disorder, should make an appointment with their family doctor as soon as possible. Serious medical complications can arise quickly in children and teens who diet, over exercise, or engage in other eating disorder behaviours, such as purging. The family doctor can help make the diagnosis, and make a referral to specialty services.