Young women and eating disorders


  • Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents
  • 9 million girls and 1 million boys are affected
  • 95% of girls with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 - 25
  • 50% of girls between 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight
  • 80% of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight
  • Death is a serious consequence of anorexia

Main type of eating disorders are: Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge-eating

The causes are many and complex and are most likely a result from several biological, psychological, environmental and sociocultural factors.

In our society there is a strong message that to be thin is to be happy and successful. Young girls, in the teen years, who are in the midst of developing their identity are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and the influence of the media on how they think about their bodies.

Helicopter Parents
Parents, especially helicopter parents, who many be inadvertently putting too much pressure on their daughters to be "perfect" in every way, may be unwittingly sending the wrong messages about body size.

When parents like these control every aspect of a child's life, one way for the child to regain some sense of control is to control what goes into their mouths.

Also, when parents are overly critical or the teen doesn't feel secure in their family, eating disorders can surface

When moms especially talk about their own diets and dissatisfaction with their bodies, their daughters might only hear the messages about being thin to be happy, accepted, fit into the most attractive clothes.

Transitions may also precipitate an eating disorder. Changing schools, going off to college, divorce in the family, a breakup in a relationship, these are all situations that may be out of the teen's control. One way that some people cope with the feeling of being out of control is by controlling what they eat and how much they eat.

Another example, many athletes from gymnastics and ballet to ice skating succumb to the implied pressures to be a certain body type.

What are the warning signs that parents can be aware of if they're concerned about anorexia:
Besides being thin, their child might be have:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Brittle nails
  • Thinning of the hair on their head (from lack of vitamins)
  • Soft downy hair on their arms and legs (the body tries to insulate from the lack of fat)
  • Loss of periods
  • Dry skin, cracks along the lips
  • Shivering, because they're cold
  • Wearing extra layers of clothes when it's warm outside
  • Signs of dehydration
  • Stress fractures from bone loss

What might a parent notice

  • Many times the teen will say they're not hungry and refuse to eat
  • They might be exercise to excess, like 2-3 hour runs
  • Be preoccupied with food,
  • Taste the food, then spit it out
  • Have rigid eating rituals, such as cutting it up into tiny pieces, then moving food around on the plate
  • Talk about food obsessively, but not eat it
  • Prepare meals for the family and not eat it.
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Eating only a few "safe" foods usually those low in calories and fat
  • Repeated weighing before and after exercise and eating
  • Use of laxatives
  • Elaborate food diaries

What about bulimia and purging?
It's important that parents be alert to possible signs and in that case, they kind of need to be a detective and do some sleuthing.

By all means listen outside of the bathroom if you think your child is making themselves vomit (purging) It means that when the child goes off to school, check their room for: food wrappers and food that they may have horded.

Go through the trash, to look for cookie, ice cream and donut packages

Be alert to your child eating alone frequently in their room, in front of the TV, on the way to and from school, in their car

What can parents do?
First remember that this is mental illness and needs to be treated, there is no shame in getting help, because the earlier it's identified and treated, the better the prognosis

If you're concerned, the pediatrician is often the best place to start. A physical examination is important, including lab tests

Here are three great local resources:

Is there a way to prevent eating disorders?
Parents can do a few simple things.

Eating together as a family is helpful so that you can talk about food, and being healthy, it also gives you a chance to see how much your teen is eating and if there are any red flags

Talk about body size openly and how being healthy is more important than fitting into a certain size.

When watching TV, movies, or when you pick up a magazine talk about different media messages that pressure people into looking a certain way.

Talk about the pitfalls of dieting and also of overeating.

Read Barbara Dehn's blog, "Barb's Daily Dose," at

About Barbara Dehn

Barb Dehn is a practicing Women's Health Nurse Practitioner, award winning author, and a nationally recognized health expert. She holds a BS from Boston College and earned Masters degree at the University of California, San Francisco. An in demand and popular national speaker on all aspects of women's health, she also lectures at Stanford and is a frequent health expert on NBC's iVillageLive and recently In the Loop with iVillage.
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