The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates at least 30 million people in the U.S. need eating disorder treatment centers, many of whom are young women. Having an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa puts a person at serious risk for life-threatening conditions, so awareness is as important as finding a center for eating disorders.
Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices but medical problems that develop as the result of a number of factors like genetics and underlying mental health conditions. Eating disorder treatment requires comprehensive academic and family support along with the highest level of medical and psychiatric care For parents, it starts with identifying the various forms of eating disorders in adolescence, the symptoms and the gold standard eating disorder treatment that can make a difference.
What Is an Eating Disorder?
“Eating disorders in adolescence” is an umbrella term used to define persistent harmful eating patterns. Most young women focus on beauty and body shape. For some, that focus begins to so severely impact their physical and emotional health in a negative way that they require eating disorder counseling. They may have developed dangerous eating habits in an attempt to compensate for what they inaccurately see as being flaws in their body and weight.
Conditions that fall into the category of an eating disorder in adolescence include:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge-eating disorder
- Rumination disorder
- Restrictive food intake disorder
The most common conditions seen at centers for eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Each one of these conditions comes with its own set of risk factors. It is possible to have more than one of them at a time, as well. The complexity of diagnosing and implementing eating disorder treatments, along with addressing co-occurring conditions like substance abuse or mood imbalances, is one reason why adolescents require professional care to achieve long-term eating disorder recovery.
What Are the Symptoms of an Eating Disorder?
Each eating disorder is different, so the symptoms depend on the exact disorder or combination of behaviors. A person with anorexia nervosa may present with different symptoms than someone with binge-eating disorder, and therefore the teenage eating disorder treatment might be different. To understand eating disorders more clearly, you need to break them down further.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by very low body weight and caloric restrictions. A person with this condition typically has a distorted view of their body.
People seeking eating disorder treatment centers for anorexia nervosa uses various and excessive ways to control their body weight, often by severely limiting their daily calorie intake. They may exercise excessively or abuse laxative / diet aids to promote weight loss.
Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening condition because it can introduce other health concerns like heart problems. These behaviors may also cause digestive damage and addiction. Additionally, we need to be acutely aware of the individual’s mental health; one in five deaths associated with anorexia nervosa is due to suicide.
Symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:
- Extremely restrictive calorie intake
- Obsession with being thin and body fat
- Fear of gaining weight
- Distorted self-image that may go beyond weight
- Denial of not eating
- Social isolation
Anorexia nervosa comes with physical symptoms, as well, such as:
- Hair thinning and loss
- Thinning bones
- Muscle wasting
- Brittle nails
- Dry skin
- Yellow pallor
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Slowed breathing
- Low body temperature
- Body hair growth
Fifty percent of adolescents that seek teenage eating disorders treatment for anorexia nervosa have a comorbid anxiety disorder, like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The eating disorder bulimia nervosa is characterized by binging and purging. In other words, a person with this condition might eat a lot of food and then vomit to avoid the high-calorie intake. Like anorexia, people who look for eating disorder counseling to treat bulimia nervosa tend to be preoccupied with weight, shape and body fat. It is estimated that 1.5 percent of women experience bulimia nervosa at some point in their lives, often as adolescents. More than half of these women also have a comorbid anxiety disorder and one in ten abuse alcohol.
Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:
- A recurring sore throat
- Swollen glands in the neck and jaw
- Acid reflux disorder
- Digestive and intestinal problems
- Severe dehydration
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Skin irritation on the back of one hand
There are similarities between anorexia and bulimia and they can occur simultaneously. They both involve being obsessively concerned with how one looks and how much they eat. People seeking a center for eating disorders to treat either condition can use exercise to compensate for what they see as excessive eating. Teenagers with eating disorders may also abuse laxatives or restrict calories. With bulimia nervosa, intense fear of weight gain forces this person to purge or throw up what they do eat.
Binge-eating disorder refers to eating large amounts of food in a short time. Teenagers with eating disorders like this condition feel like they have no control over eating and may eat even if not hungry or already full.
Many times after binging, they may feel extreme guilt or shame, but unlike those with bulimia, individuals struggling with binge eating disorder will not attempt to purge or compensate for the behavior. Binge eating often runs in families.
Symptoms of the binge-eating disorder include:
- Eating large amounts of food in a short time frame
- Eating when not hungry
- Eating when full
- Eating until uncomfortable
- Eating alone or hiding food
- Frequent dieting but, usually, without results
Like both anorexia and bulimia, binge-eating disorder is often accompanied by an anxiety or a mood disorder and, possibly, substance abuse.
Risk Factors for Eating Disorders
Young women are the most likely to need eating disorder counseling, but it is becoming more common for teenage boys, as well. There is a high occurrence of eating disorders among the transgender community, too. Studies show around 16 percent of transgender college students seek treatment for one or more of these conditions.
Some common risk factors for an eating disorder include:
- Family history:eating disorders tend to run in families or show up in siblings. There may even be specific DNA variations linked to eating disorders.
- History of mental health problems: individuals may have a history of anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- People who count calories:frequently weight management attempts can develop into a pattern that transitions to one or more eating disorders, especially if it involves very restrictive calorie intake. Depriving the body of calories impacts brain functioning. Current theories include the idea that restrictive dieting makes it hard to return to normal eating habits without fear of gaining weight.
Complications of Eating Disorders
All eating disorders have the possibility of becoming life-threatening and causing major health problems, some of which can be chronic. Understanding the serious medical complications associated with the different types of eating disorders is an important part of the eating disorder recovery process. The complications one may face with anorexia nervosa include:
- Heart damage
- Muscle loss
- Kidney failure
- Arrested sexual maturity
- Growth failure
- Increased risk of infections
- Increased risk of mental health problems
Many of those same risks exist for those with untreated bulimia nervosa including:
- Rupture of the esophagus
- Gastric rupture
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Peptic ulcers
Those with binge-eating disorder may face complications, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Kidney disease
- Gallbladder disease
- Joint damage
Teenage eating disorder treatment encourages recovery by providing coping tools and strategies for the thoughts and behaviors associated with these disorders.
Getting Treatment for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders tend to develop in younger individuals, and therefore being a teenager and eating disorders seem to go hand in hand. The best treatment approach for any type of eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder involves taking a comprehensive approach to care. Generally, treatment requires both medical and psychiatric care with a holistic approach designed to create a path to long-term recovery. Treatment may include:
- Individual psychotherapy sessions with a primary therapist at least twice a week
- Weekly sessions with other team specialists such as a dietitian or family therapist
- Daily group therapies, such asdialectical behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Customizedtherapeutic assignments
- Supported exposure therapy to normalize life and safely address potential Exposure therapy could include going to a restaurant or a movie.
- Life skills development to find ways to better manage time, complete tasksat home, work or school and cope with potential stressors like school or homework
In some cases, medication is necessary to find the path to recovery. The medical practitioners involved in a treatment program may suggest certain medications in conjunction with other therapeutic interventions. Medical interventions could potentially include antidepressants or mood stabilizers.
All treatment programs should involve care for co-occurring disorders, such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), that can occur simultaneously with the eating disorder. Treatment programs can also support the client while integrating important parts of his or her life, like movement and social interactions. Aftercare planning provides support for the return to life after treatment, including ways to avoid relapse and information on how to get help if needed.
“One way to think about the process is to remind yourself you are working toward something, you are learning to accept yourself where you are at this moment, are doing the best you can, and will continue working toward change. This will involve having compassion – for yourself.”
— Carolyn Costin
Residential care in a homelike setting puts the person seeking eating disorder recovery in a caring environment conducive to healing. It allows them to work with experienced and educated staff who align with the individual and support her on the path to recovery. The dedicated staff provides the highest level of medical and psychiatric care, in a nurturing environment, to support and guide the individual on their path to recovery.