Eating disorders in adolescents: risk factors and warning signs

The various risk factors that eventually lead to the development of an eating problem turn food intake into a bad habit that can in turn trigger a poor energy balance that endangers both health and, sometimes, the vine itself too. This will ultimately depend on biological, as well as personal, social and cultural factors, which will allow us to understand both the origin, continuity, evolution and prognosis of this process. Thus, aspects such as learning about eating habits in the family or promoting the ideal of thinness in the little ones are transcendental issues.

The beliefs, traditions and knowledge that the family has about food shape the food tastes, preferences and aversions of all its members and are sometimes the origin of eating problems in children. Also a very dominant, restrictive and demanding family context, regarding food intake and physical appearance, can imbue the moment of feeding with emotional nuances that cause a lack of appetite and rejection of food in children.

The group of friends also plays an important role in eating problems., mainly in the adolescent stage, where these problems are more frequent and friendships acquire special relevance and a privileged position of influence in decision-making.

In fact, it is increasingly common to observe that adolescents with eating problems form their own groups in which they feel understood and supported. The Internet resource is extremely useful for these groups and, in fact, in recent decades there has been a great proliferation of web pages where young people, through virtual communities, reject the risks and minimize the repercussions of serious problems such as anorexia and bulimia. At the moment thousands of teenagers with these types of problems have taken refuge in these social networks, creating an unreal world, in which they develop their own language and codes.

Friendships acquire special relevance and a privileged position of influence in decision-making

Finally, also the culture where one grows and is educated has a relevant role. There are societies where young people come to closely associate personal, social and work success with physical appearance and, in particular, with the current ideals of slenderness, attractiveness, elegance and thinness, versus obesity. These ideas are internalized from childhood with comments and information that come from different sources, such as through the media, or even simple conversations in daily life where one hears, for example, a criticism about “extra pounds” from someone or a compliment about someone else’s weight loss.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in this culture of body praise, aesthetic operations are increasing at increasingly younger ages. All of these aspects reflect the generalized growing importance of physical appearance, which is even more notable in the adolescent stage, where numerous physical changes are occurring starting with puberty and there is an added challenge of facing these changes and integrating them into the identity of the person.

People who are close to, live with, or work with adolescents can detect certain signs that warn of the development of an eating problem. Detecting cases of anorexia nervosa and bulimia can prevent many health problems in the people who suffer from them, since those involved are not going to take the initiative to share their problem with others, nor would they even be able to admit it in most cases.

In the particular case of anorexia nervosa, these are some signs of danger:

The person performs continuous diets, hides food or breaks it down into small portions to eat them more slowly or in less quantity (however, the plate appears full both to him/her and to any observer); Ingestion can often be followed by purging behaviors (self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diuretics and physical exercise, which can be done compulsively with the aim of losing numerous calories through this activity); appears very anxious, especially when trying to have a conversation about food, and also shows signs of depression; the menstrual period ceases; the person is pale, with dry skin and hair loss appears; He also suffers from constipation and shows great muscle weakness; They begin to isolate themselves from their usual friends and take refuge in new ones that support and understand them in their struggle to lose weight, all normally through new technologies.

👉🏻 Here we summarize the main general signs that can raise the suspicion that a teenager is developing a serious eating disorder:

  • Behavioral clues:

• Change in eating habits: cutting food too much, chewing for too long, hiding or throwing food, refusing to eat in public…
• Excessive physical exercise
• Change in the way you dress (show more interest in fashion, wear loose clothing to hide certain parts of the body…)
• Constant worry about weight and eating (for example, making excuses not to eat)
• Increased self-criticism and demands on oneself (for example, using more hours of study and exercise)
• Decreased mood (symptoms of depression, anxiety…)
• Isolation from regular friends, less social contacts.

  • Physical clues:

• Marked weight loss in a short period of time
• Irregularities in menstruation (or even cessation of it)
• Abdominal pain, low tension and dizziness
• Gastrointestinal and dental problems
• Cardiac arrhythmias
• Loss of hair and muscle strength
• Sad and haggard appearance
• Cracked and dry skin

There are always changes in the eating habits that the person has shown until now, as well as in their way of relating to food. You may start to prohibit yourself from certain foods, mainly those with a high calorie and fat content, such as sweets or certain meats, and also avoid some ways of cooking (fried and battered foods are replaced with roasted and boiled foods).

Sometimes he begins to be interested in making his own food or controlling who is doing it, pointing out how much he should serve on his plate or what type of food it would be most advisable for him to cook. The adolescent who suffers from the disorder also will try to skip meals without being discovered and make excuses for not eating.

In the case of people with bulimia, the main sign is the existence of binge eating, that is, if they eat a lot of food in a short time, and do so in an anxious and compulsive manner; next, it is very likely that they go to the bathroom systematically (sometimes even in the middle of meals) and lock themselves in for a while (this is the time to induce vomiting).

The constant restlessness is another indication present in young people who suffer from these problems. It is very difficult for them to feel relaxed and they constantly seek activity, in matters as simple as stopping taking the elevator and starting to use the stairs to go home, or stopping using public transportation and choosing to walk to their destination.

Sometimes he begins to be interested in making his own food or controlling who is doing it by pointing out how much should go on his plate.

His character becomes more irritable and angry, and at the same time more reserved and less sociable, not wanting to share activities with their friends and replacing them with others of a solitary nature, such as listening to music or studying in their room alone. All of this is also combined with frequent comments about their dissatisfaction with their weight and body image.

    Guide financed by the Government Delegation of «Plan Nacional sobre Drogas» (Spain)