5 Signs Your Teen Might Have an Eating Disorder

It’s not always easy to spot someone with an eating disorder. Sufferers may go great lengths to keep the problem secret. Contrary to popular belief, they may not even appear obviously underweight and are often overweight. Teenagers with eating disorders nonetheless face the dangerous consequences including malnutrition, muscle atrophy, cardiovascular problems, dental problems, and even death.

Staying aware of eating disorder symptoms, keeping an eye on your teens, and following your gut instinct can go a long way towards catching eating disorders early. Read on to find out just some of the signs teens may suffer from eating disorders.

  1. Skin & Hair Changes

    Your teen’s skin and hair can hold powerful clues about his or her health.

    One of the better-known signs of malnourishment caused by eating disorders is lanugo, a peach fuzz-like growth of fine hair on the body believed to help regulate body temperature. Individuals with eating disorders may also experience brittle hair and dry or scaly skin resulting from a decrease in the fats that supply the skin with moisture, thyroid changes, or compulsive hand-washing.

    Anorexics may also experience carotenodermia, an orange discoloration of the skin. Finally, calluses on the knuckles of the hand called Russell’s Sign can be created when individuals use their hands to force themselves to vomit and the knuckles meet with the front teeth.
  2. Eating Rituals

    A teen with eating disorders may create rituals around food. These can include eating alone, chewing food and spitting it out, cutting food into tiny pieces, eating foods in a particular order, or eating only a certain food or food group.
  3. Tummy Trouble

    Eating disorders can cause of a variety of stomach ailments. Bulimics may develop heartburn or acid reflux as a result of damage to the stomach or esophagus. Ulcers may also develop due to the presence of stomach acid in both bulimics and anorexics. Teens with eating disorders may also complain of constipation, stomachaches, or bloating.
  4. Baggy Clothing

    If your teen becomes self-conscious about his or her body shape, either because of rapid weight loss or a distorted body image, loose clothing can offer refuge from the eyes of others–including yours.

  5. Social Withdrawal

    Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and the easiest way to accomplish this is often by cutting out relationships. The depression and anxiety that often co-occur with eating disorders can also cause teens to withdraw from activities they once enjoyed.

    Most teens have moments where they need space but a drastic withdrawal from family life and socializing with friends can be a sign something is wrong.

Taking Action: What to Do If You Suspect Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

If you suspect  an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to take action. The sooner an eating disorder is detected, the better your teen’s chances of recovery.

Seeking a medical assessment by your child’s physician is a good first step towards recovery. The doctor will perform an assessment including questions about food-related feelings and behaviors, measuring weight, body mass index, and cardiovascular function, examining skin and hair, and lab work. If a diagnosis of an eating disorder is made, your doctor can provide suggestions for continued care.

For more information and referrals to physicians trained in eating disorders, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.


  1. Gupta, M.A., Gupta, A.K., Haberman, H.F. (1987). Dermatalogic signs in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Archives of Dermatology, 123(10), 1286-1390. Retrieved from: http://archderm.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/123/10/1386
  2. Pritts SD, Susman J. (2003). Diagnosis of eating disorders in primary care. American Family Physician. 67(2). 297–304.
  3. National Eating Disorders Association. (2008).  Eating disorder signs, symptoms, and behaviors. In NEDA Toolkit for Parents. Retrieved from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/toolkits/NEDA-Toolkit-Parents_03-10-09.pdf
  4. National Eating Disorders Association. (2008). NEDA toolkit for parents: First steps to getting help. Retrieved from: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/toolkits/NEDA-TKP-A06-FirstSteps.pdf

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor on April 1, 2012 at 05:00 AM

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