Ultimate Guide on Teen Eating Disorders - Treatment & Help

This article seeks to guide on:

  • What teen eating disorders are
  • Types of teenage eating disorders
  • Signs and symptoms of teen eating disorders
  • Treatment options for teen eating disorders

Understanding Teen Eating Disorders

Teen eating disorders are commonly mistaken to be lifestyle choices, but they’re definitely not. Eating disorders in teens are serious psychological conditions characterized by distressing thoughts and emotions that disturb one’s eating behavior. Eating disorders can adversely affect physical, mental, and social function. They involve a preoccupation with your weight, shape, and food.

Teen eating disorders have been linked to genetics, low self-esteem, psychological issues, unhealthy dieting techniques, hormones, trauma, and other environmental factors. Teens who participate in sports like gymnastics, ballet, track, and swimming may develop eating disorders due to pressure from their coaches and peers. These sports require a lean body and can cause your teen to fear gaining weight. Perfectionism and obsession with results may also cause the development of eating disorders in teens.

According to a survey conducted by the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), it is estimated that the prevalence of eating disorders in teens stood at 2.7%. Females were twice as likely (3.8%) to develop eating disorders as males (1.5%).

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Teens

The signs and symptoms of adolescent eating disorders may vary depending on the type of disorder. Generally, teens struggling with these types of disorders may present with some behavioral/ emotional and physical changes. Some behavioral signs of eating disorders include the following:

  • A preoccupation with weight, calorie counting, and dieting
  • Picky eating and refusing to eat certain types of foods
  • Skipping some meals or having very small portions during mealtime
  • Attitudes that may indicate a desire to lose weight or control the amount of food they take
  • Excessive exercising to prevent weight gain
  • Removal of certain food groups from their diet
  • A preoccupation with their body shape
  • Mood swings
  • Distorted and negative self-image issues
  • teenager low self-esteem
  • Hoarding food
  • Eating in secret
  • Irritability
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss
  • Immediately going to the bathroom after meals
  • Little concern over rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Withdrawing from social gatherings or social isolation in adolescence
  • Food rituals

Some physical signs that might indicate your teen is developing an eating disorder include the following:

  • Fluctuation in weight; for example, rapid weight gain or loss
  • Stomach cramps, constipation, and acid reflux
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Insomnia
  • Cuts across their fingers which may indicate inducing vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • General weakness
  • Yellow skin
  • Wounds take longer to heal
  • Swelling of salivary glands
  • Brittle nails

It is important to intervene immediately if you notice these behavioral or physical signs of eating disorders. You can start by talking to your teen about the behavior and what you think might be happening. Some resistance is expected, but ensure you communicate openly about the issue and listen to their concerns. Work out a plan with them to seek professional help for the condition. You can check out our expert guide on how to communicate with your teenager.

Types of Eating Disorders in Teens

There are several eating disorders that your teen might develop. The most common ones include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidant/ restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), rumination disorder, and pica.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is the most common thought that comes to mind when you think about eating disorders. It develops during adolescence and occurs in women more than men. Teens suffering from anorexia usually have very low body weight but consider themselves overweight. They have an intense fear of weight gain and a negative or distorted self-image. They also make extreme efforts to control their body weight by eating as little as possible to prevent weight gain.

Teens suffering from anorexia may also restrict their diet by cutting out many foods that include fat or carbs that can make them gain weight. Anorexia is the obsession with thin body weight; the thinner, the better. The danger with anorexia is that no matter how much weight is lost, it is never enough. Teens suffering from anorexia may begin exercising excessively to lose weight while restricting their diet.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa include the following:

  • Extreme and rapid weight loss
  • Thin stature/Appearance
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Thinning out of hair
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Constipation
  • Extreme dietary restriction
  • Skipping meals
  • Irregular or absence of menstruation

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is a serious and potentially fatal eating disorder characterized by binge eating followed by purging. Teens with bulimia eat a lot of food at once and then purge it from their system through vomiting or abusing laxatives. This is usually done to eliminate the extra calories they have consumed. Teens with bulimia fear weight gain but do not want to be suspected of having an eating disorder. They will act like they enjoy the food but purge it secretly by self-inducing vomiting or abusing laxatives.

Bulimia is rarely about food but about self-image. Teens with bulimia are preoccupied with their weight and want an ideal body shape.

The signs and symptoms of bulimia include the following:

  • A preoccupation with body weight and shape
  • Fear of weight gain
  • Binge eating followed by purging
  • Feeling like they have no control while eating
  • Self-induced vomiting, abusing laxatives, diuretics, and enemas
  • Using dietary supplements for weight loss or meal replacements
  • Teenage low self esteem and a negative self-image

Binge Eating Disorder

From its name, binge eating disorder is a serious psychological condition where your teen consumes abnormally large quantities of food at a go. Teens with binge-eating disorders cannot control or stop eating once they start. They often feel embarrassed about the amount of food they consume but have a compulsion to consume as much food as possible.

Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include the following:

  • Eating large quantities of food regularly at one go
  • Feeling out of control while eating
  • Eating large portions even when you are not hungry
  • Eating very fast while binging
  • Eating secretly
  • Hiding and hoarding food
  • Feeling disgusted, ashamed, and guilty after binge eating

Binge eaters do not purge the food after consumption.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

ARFID is a serious psychological condition similar to anorexia nervosa. The key difference between ARFID and anorexia is that individuals suffering from ARFID are not preoccupied with their body image. Teens suffering from ARFID are picky eaters and do not consume enough calories to ensure normal bodily function. ARFID can cause dangerous weight loss preventing the teen from performing their daily responsibilities.

Signs of ARFID include the following:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Rapid and severe weight loss
  • Stomach cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Always feeling cold
  • Thinning of hair on the head
  • Dry and brittle skin and nails
  • Muscle weakness


Pica is an eating disorder where a person compulsively eats non-food items. Pica is common in children and is usually not diagnosed in children. If teens eat non-food items without nutritional value, they may be diagnosed with pica. It can be very dangerous because they can consume hazardous items.

Teens with pica often eat hair, chalk, ash, eggshells, clay, thread, paper, soap, paint, and even feces.

Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder is a condition that involves regurgitating food that has been swallowed and re-chewing it. This behavior typically occurs up to 30 minutes after they have eaten.

Rumination disorder can cause weight loss and severe malnutrition in children if not treated.

Treatment Options for Eating Disorders in Teens

It is every parent’s wish to help their teens with any struggle. Once you decide to seek treatment for your teen suffering from eating disorders, it is important to consider several programs depending on the level of care your teen needs. At Key Healthcare, we specialize in treating several teen mental health issues, including eating disorders. Our programs are tailor-made for each teen, depending on the level of care they need. Our teen eating disorder options include the Intensive Outpatient Program for teens (IOP), Teen Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), and Residential Treatment Center (RTC), for mild, moderate, and chronic eating disorders respectively.

Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

The Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is designed for teens suffering from a wide variety of mental health conditions, including eating disorders and teen substance abuse disorders. The teen IOP runs for 4-12 weeks, depending on the severity of the condition being treated. This program can be very beneficial in treating eating disorders by creating a safe and supportive environment for your teen.

During outpatient eating disorder treatment, your teen will participate in individual and teen group therapy, where they can express their struggles with eating disorders. In teen individual therapy, they have a one-on-one session with a registered therapist to develop a positive mindset and develop healthy coping mechanisms. The therapist utilizes evidence-based therapy approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Teens (CBT) and Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), which focus on changing the teen’s behavior toward triggers. These therapy approaches also ensure teens deal with underlying conditions such as co-occurring disorders.

During treatment using IOP, teens also participate in teen family therapy which teaches the family how to support their teen as they recover.

Our IOP also offers academic support and aftercare services to increase the chances of successful rehabilitation. Qualified academic coaches and tutors offer academic support to ensure your teen does not fall behind in school.

Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

The Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program at Key Healthcare is reserved for teens with moderate to chronic mental health and substance abuse issues. It is more intensive than the IOP but not as intensive as the Residential Treatment Center (RTC). It typically runs for 3-4 weeks. During this course of treatment, your teen spends 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, at the facility where they can benefit from a structured environment. Here, teens learn how to develop coping skills independently through a controlled environment.

Our PHP facility utilizes coordinated multidisciplinary clinical services to treat eating disorders. The key difference between PHP and RTC is where the teenager stays. Our PHP program allows teens to make their living arrangements, while our RTC program commits teens to the facility. PHP uses individual, group, and family therapies to treat eating disorders. This ensures the teen gets one-on-one sessions and benefits from learning in groups to foster trust and family bonds. PHP also offers academic support from qualified tutors to ensure your teen does not fall behind in school.

Residential Treatment Center (RTC)

The teen residential treatment program is the most intense treatment option for teens with chronic mental health and teen substance abuse issues. It typically runs for 45-60 days, and the teen is committed to our facility in Malibu, Los Angeles. It is reserved for teens with chronic conditions or who may be a danger to themselves and others. Our RTC program offers round-the-clock care for teens with chronic eating disorders. It focuses on compassionate and family-based eating disorder treatment for all genders using tailor-made treatment plans depending on the level of care needed by the teen. The RTC program is comprehensive since it addresses dual diagnosis treatment to treat both the body and mind.

During inpatient eating disorder treatment, your teen receives a structured environment to help them focus on recovery and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Our RTC program offers evidence-based and holistic treatment approaches for teens with chronic eating disorders. Some of the evidence-based techniques used include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT for teens, Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT for teens), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for teens (ACT). These therapy approaches aim to change the teen’s behavior and reaction toward stress and triggers. DBT, for example, involves teaching teens to accept themselves for who they are. It encourages them to look beyond their image issues and recover in a more fulfilling way.

Holistic eating disorder treatment options utilized in our RTC program include art therapy, music therapy, yoga therapy, and surf therapy. These approaches help teens become confident and expressive. They also increase their self-esteem and self-worth since they can be proud of their creation. Teens learn to paint, sculpt, draw, sing, play musical instruments, and produce music to express their emotions through various art forms. Holistic approaches and recreational activities help teens develop healthy coping mechanisms to keep their minds away from negative thoughts.

Our RTC program offers dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders. Co-occurring disorders are mental health conditions that co-exist with other conditions simultaneously. Eating disorders may occur simultaneously with other conditions, such as general anxiety disorder, body dysmorphia, and depression.

Our RTC program also offers academic support from qualified academic coaches and tutors to ensure your teen does not fall behind in school.

Medications for Eating Disorders

Medication should not be used as the primary treatment for eating disorders. According to a 2019 study, some medications were shown to help treat eating disorders. Medication should not be used to treat symptoms of anorexia nervosa or to encourage weight gain. This is because anorexia is more about self-image issues compared to food. For bulimia nervosa, antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were shown to impact patients who have bulimia positively. The same is true for teens suffering from binge-eating disorders.

SSRIs work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin in nerve cells. This allows serotonin to linger in the nerves and pass further messages between nerve cells. Serotonin is linked to elevated mood, appetite, and other emotional characteristics that can be very beneficial in treating eating disorders.

How to Choose a Therapist or Treatment Provider for Your Teen

Teens with eating disorders like anorexia need therapy as the primary mode of treatment. Choosing a treatment provider can be daunting. You need to consider several factors when choosing a therapist for your teen. These factors include the following:

  • Qualifications and experience. As a parent, you want your teen to receive the best care possible to treat their eating disorder. Looking for qualified and experienced therapists to treat your teen’s eating disorders can effectively help your teen with their struggles.
  • Treatment approaches offered. Choose a therapist who offers an approach compatible with your teen’s personality and level of care. Look for therapists who approach the issue with compassion to increase the chances of success.
  • Assessing rapport. The relationship between teens and therapists can be the driving force behind effective therapy. How your teen feels about the therapist is more important than what the therapist offers. Without rapport, the chances of successful treatment are slim.
  • Specialization. Look for a therapist who specializes in working with teens. Teens are in a unique stage of development and require a different level of care compared to adults.
  • Location. It is important to find a therapist who is close to your home. This ensures you do not have to travel long distances to receive help.

Navigating Insurance Coverage for Eating Disorder Treatment

Treating mental health conditions such as eating disorders can be costly. This is one of the biggest barriers to treating such conditions. Where do you begin if you receive an eating disorder diagnosis?

First, you should talk to your insurance company. Ask your insurance provider to send you information on in-network benefits for your plan. This information will give you a perspective on deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. Ensure you ask whether your insurance covers the teen mental illness treatment. You should also inquire whether your chosen treatment facility is in-network and what programs your insurer covers.

If you do not have insurance, there is no need to worry. You can also access scholarship funds such as the Manna Fund, Project Heal, Eating Disorder Recovery Support, and Andrea’s Voice. Information on these funds can be accessed through the following websites:

Manna Fund. www.mannafund.org

Andrea’s Voice. www.andreasvoice.org

Project Heal. www.projectheal.org

You can also receive more information on insurance queries from the National Eating Disorders Association.

How to Support Your Teen’s Recovery

Every parent wishes to protect and help their children with their struggles. You can support your teen and aid their recovery in several ways. These ways include the following:

  • Learn and educate yourself about eating disorders. When you notice signs of an eating disorder in your teen, educating yourself on eating disorders is important. This gives you knowledge on how to discuss the topic with your teenager.
  • Join a support group. Join a support group to help you learn how to support your teen. Support groups for parents are created to give parents the skills to support their teens effectively. Learning how to support your teen through in-person interactions is easier than reading it from journals and blogs.
  • Encourage healthy eating habits and offer unconditional support. Treat every meal as a win. Small milestones need to be met for an effective recovery. Treating every meal as a win encourages teens to continue developing healthy habits because they are rewarded for every small milestone they make. By offering unconditional support, your teen feels understood and safe. This also creates an environment free of judgment.
  • Manage resistance. Recovery can be a daunting task. Teens often push back when receiving help because they are still dealing with internal struggles. You can manage resistance by first externalizing the eating disorder. Treat the teen and the disorder as different entities. This will encourage your teen to become more self-aware and fight the illness.

The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

Teens suffering from eating disorders will often have a co-occurring disorder. Co-occurring disorders are mental health conditions that exist simultaneously or at the same time as other conditions, such as substance abuse disorders. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, it is reported that over half of the people suffering from anorexia also struggle with depression and anxiety. 

Teens suffering from eating disorders may also present the following co-occurring disorders:

Mental health conditions and eating disorders form a self-sustaining cycle. This means that mental health conditions worsen symptoms associated with eating disorders and vice versa. Diagnosing co-occurring disorders makes treating eating disorders more complex. This is because the therapist needs to address the underlying causes of the eating disorder and the co-occurring disorder. This means it will take longer to treat both conditions.

Addressing Stigma Surrounding Eating Disorders and Mental Health

Many misconceptions about eating disorders prevent teens from seeking help for their condition. These include that:

  • Eating disorders are a choice
  • You must be underweight to have an eating disorder
  • People suffering from eating disorders are attention seeking
  • It is just a phase
  • Eating disorders only affect white, middle-class females
  • Eating better can treat eating disorders

You can help address the stigma around eating disorders by engaging in public campaigns to raise awareness. Teaching society about eating disorders can be beneficial in addressing the stigma surrounding eating disorders.


In conclusion, eating disorders are serious and even fatal mental health conditions that severely affect one’s eating habits. They include conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, pica, rumination disorder, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, and Binge-eating disorder. It is important to look out for signs like skipping meals, rapid weight loss or gain, cuts on the knuckles and top of the fingers due to induced vomiting, preoccupation with self-image, and judging one’s appearance constantly. These can indicate the development of eating disorders. Several treatment options are available if your teen is diagnosed with eating disorders. These include outpatient services, partial hospitalization programs, and inpatient treatment centers. It is important to intervene early to ensure your teen receives the care they need before the condition worsens.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Long Does Treatment for an Eating Disorder Typically Last?

Depending on the program chosen and the severity of the condition, eating disorder treatment can take 3-12 weeks. If the condition occurs simultaneously with a co-occurring disorder, treatment can take up to 18 months.

Can Teens with Eating Disorders Continue to Attend School?

Yes, outpatient treatment allows teens to continue attending school as they recover. Partial hospitalization and residential programs for troubled youth offer academic support for teens so they do not fall behind in school.

How Do You Know if an Eating Disorder Treatment Program is Accredited?

To find out whether a treatment facility is accredited, you can visit the Joint Commission (JCAHO) website to view all accredited treatment facilities in the United States.

Can Eating Disorders be Treated with Teletherapy?

According to a study, it was concluded that teletherapy is not as effective at treating eating disorders compared to traditional therapy. Traditional therapy ensures face-to-face evaluation and building relationships that can correct the psychological condition. Teletherapy does not guarantee psychological support and may lead to high dropout rates.

Can Eating Disorders Affect a Teen’s Academic Performance?

Yes. Eating disorders severely affect academic performance since teens cannot concentrate in class. They also lack the energy required to learn, as the brain requires a lot of energy to learn new things.

What is the Role of Nutritional Counseling in Eating Disorder Treatment?

Nutritional therapy is important in treating eating disorders since it can be used to repair the teen’s relationship with food. This helps the teen have a positive mindset towards food that will help them recover from eating disorders.