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Is my teenager eating enough or is it a sign of an eating disorder?

Updated: Feb 21

I’m sure we can all agree that being a teenager is a pretty tough time in someone's life, what with the constant hormone swings, pressure to perform at school and the ongoing social need on how best to fit in with friends. This transition from being a child to moving into adulthood can be a challenging time.

Pressures of being a teenager

The mental health foundation conducted an online survey and concluded some concerning trends. It was found that 60% of young people (aged 18 to 24) have felt so stressed by the pressure to succeed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Of equal concern was that 47% of young people have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

two teenagera both with eating disorders

How about the pressures for parents?

As a parent or caregiver, your role isn’t exactly easy either, from getting the balance between setting those parenting boundaries to allowing your child to have more independence as they approach adulthood. If you are feeling overwhelmed you are not alone as a study of 1,000 parents of teenagers found 75 per cent think the ages of 13-19 are the most challenging years of raising children, with 32 per cent admitting they were ‘unprepared’. It can often seem that whatever you say or do it comes across wrong or like you are attacking rather than the intended support that you were aiming for.

food and symptom diary

If you are worried that your teenager isn't eating enough it can feel really hard to know what to do or how to approach things. Our founder and head nutritionist, Charlotte guides us through some signs that may help you identify early warning signs of an eating disorder.

How it may begin.

Typically you may have noticed that your teenager may have initiated an innocent health kick such as the wish or desire to go to the gym more or cut out a few of the extra snacks or takeaways that were the weekly norm. This may have even been encouraged within the family which is completely normal as starting a healthier balance is a positive change and something that at this stage is completely normal.

However, if this starts to escalate or become more extreme behaviour this could be a sign this new routine or lifestyle has become a coping mechanism or rigid/inflexible new rule of way of living.

Top 10 signs your teenager might not be eating enough:

  1. They have dropped 1-2 dress sizes in a short space of time.

  2. Their health kick has turned into an all-compromising belief about how they should eat.

  3. They appear more irritable or moody than before.

  4. They appear to be more distant than usual.

  5. They often skip meals when you are around or say they have already eaten.

  6. They may drink more water than usual or chew gum often.

  7. They have started restricting the usual foods they used to enjoy.

  8. They don’t enjoy eating out and get upset if they cannot choose where to go out for food.

  9. They may suddenly appear hungry and snack on popcorn/crisps or other items late at night.

  10. They may be weighing themselves often or pinching certain areas of their body several times in one day.

The above 10 signs are not the only signs you may have witnessed. The best way to distinguish between a bit of a health kick to a sign or something being more serious is how it affects the teenager. Is it combined with rigid thoughts, rules, fears, and body image concerns or is there some balance and flexibility?

If you've noticed a few of these signs it may seem the best approach to start to question their intake or ask for their weight to be tracked etc but often this will have the complete opposite effect because if someone is already sensitive to their food intake or body image then questioning them can push them further away and make them hide it even further.

Where can I check for further signs and symptoms?

The Eating Disorder Foundation has a list of questions that can help you further identify eating disorder warning signs and signals, please note this is not a diagnostic questionnaire and if ever you are worried you should always consult your GP as soon as you can.

eating disorder support

How can I help my teenager?
Here is some helpful advice around coping with your teenager and the potential eating disorder concerns:
  1. Avoid talking about diets or body image/shapes and sizes in your household.

  2. Try all eat together and distract your teenager by talking before, during and after the meal to reduce any anxiety they may be feeling.

  3. Suggest cutting back on social media if you are noticing this is affecting their view of themselves.

  4. If you can remove food labels and store products in tins that can help reduce the anxiety about calories or excessive label checking.

  5. Remove mirrors if they are placed in places that could cause anxiety to your teenager

In general, most of us at some point in our lives will have tried to go on a health kick, a diet or a new dietary regime. What's worth remembering is that it's the extremes of behaviour and the duration of this that is the main cause for concern. If your loved one is severely cutting out carbohydrates, or high-fat foods and not having any snacks or any usual treat foods for over 2 months and with this has very controlling thoughts about what to eat or how food is cooked then you may be witnessing the start of an unhealthy relationship with food and body image taking hold.

It is generally not healthy to go on extremely low-calorie diets or to restrict whole food groups as this can lead to nutrient deficiencies and future health risks such as low bone density or fertility problems in females in later life.

If you are worried that your teenager is showing signs of prolonged unhealthy beliefs about food, or negative body image concerns the best thing to do is to be there for them and explain that you are concerned. We have written a helpful guide around eating disorder resources and support which can be helpful to know where to seek professional guidance.

Nutrition and psychological support

We typically work with teenagers, adults and their families to help them manage their eating disorders or disordered thoughts around food through education about nutrition and what constitutes healthy eating. Often the food restrictions that were commenced were started by their internal fears about what that food will do to their body image. We also use an approach that utilises cognitive behaviour therapy which is a type of cognitive behaviour therapy for eating disorders to help reframe and address some of the cognitive biases and fears that keep the eating disorder dominant.

Why would this have happened? Is it something I have done wrong?

First of all, the start of an eating disorder is a complex multifactorial mix of social pressures, school pressure, and genetic predisposition amongst many others and blaming yourself is neither helpful nor the cause of the condition so please don't think this as it's not the case.

We know several factors can make children more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. These include:

  • Having a close family member with an eating disorder

  • Having an existing mental health difficulty such as depression or anxiety

  • Stressful life events

  • Abuse

  • Bullying

  • Pressures at school

  • Pressure from the media to be thin

  • Having hobbies where being thin is seen as important, such as dancing or athletic

What are the next steps if you are worried about your child?

We advise you to first speak to your GP and ask for a health check to get your teenager's blood pressure, weight, and blood taken to make sure they are clinically sent to the correct place for treatment.

The health nutritionist team offers eating disorder treatment and we offer a complimentary discovery to advise if we are the right team to help you or your teenager through this recovery journey. Please do seek support early as the earlier you can get the guidance you and your child need the better and faster the recovery.


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