Understanding the Dangers of Teen Eating Disorders
Puberty is a time when teens experience a lot of changes happening to them. Some may be emotional in nature, but the most noticeable ones are the physical changes. It’s very normal for teens to start gaining weight during their adolescent years as they grow into their continuously-maturing physiques. A maturing body may go through an awkward phase for a short time, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.
Because teens are going through a lot of changes emotionally and physically during their puberty years, many attempts to diet and exercise in order to change how they perceive themselves. There’s really nothing wrong with having a healthy diet, but a lot of teens have the wrong idea about dieting, which may lead to eating disorders.
Teen Help – Are Eating Disorders Dangerous?
Eating disorders are considered to be serious medical problems. Aside from the psychological effect, it can have on people, especially those as impressionable as teens, there are other dangers that come with teen eating disorders. Here are a few examples:
- Malnutrition – Contrary to what some people may initially think, malnutrition is a risk for people who are overeating as much as it is a risk for those who are undereating. Long term malnutrition results to depriving the body of the correct amount of nutrients it needs to function properly. Complications can lead to respiratory illnesses, kidney failure, heart attack, and other serious consequences.
- Slowing down body functions – When a body does not get the proper amount of nutrients it needs to function, it tends to go into a slow mode of operation in order to protect itself. This is why many young girls who have teen eating disorders experience amenorrhea where they stop menstruating for a period of time. Thyroid functions slow down, heart rate also slows down, and the blood pressure also drops, sometimes to a very dangerous level that may cause the heart to stop beating. This can happen even to overeaters who purge after they binge because they don’t retain what they eat.
- Acid disorders – Binge eating, and then purging afterward can cause the stomach to rupture because of the distress it is being put through. Purging can also cause tearing in the esophagus, stomach erosion, or severe reflux which means that a person can barely keep food down even if they already want to. The acid that continuously passes through the gastric region and esophagus may also cause cancer in the stomach or in the throat.
- Mild anemia – Frequent starvation due to improper dieting may lead to a mild case of anemia which can become severe over time. Muscle mass may become severely reduced and the joints become more pronounced or swollen. Frequent dizziness or a feeling of being lightheaded also comes with being slightly anemic.
- Changes in physical appearance – Thin people do not necessarily look better. Teens who are thin because of their continuous bad diet (through starving themselves or any other unnatural means of losing weight) often look sallow and unhealthy. Their nails become bitter, their hair loses its natural sheen, their skin becomes dry and yellowish. Their skin also becomes covered with soft hair that looks like fur or animal wool called lanugo.
- Constipation – Improper dieting can cause the body to not retain water. It can also happen when people purge after binge eating. It’s not just the food that gets expelled out of the body but also the fluids that the body needs to process human waste.
- Temporary Paralysis – Starvation and malnutrition can cause an overall weakness in the body as well as muscle atrophy (where muscles begin to waste away as the body feeds on itself to survive). Weakness and muscle atrophy can cause teens with eating disorders to be temporarily paralyzed.
- Hypoglycemia – Low blood sugar can lead to the deterioration of neurons in the brain. Prolonged hypoglycemia may indicate problems with the liver and kidney. Hypoglycemic shock may cause death.
- Hyponatremia – Some teens respond to their natural hunger by water-loading or drinking water instead of eating. While it may help you feel full to some extent, drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia. When people suffer from this, it means that not enough sodium is in the bloodstream. When there is not enough sodium in the body, it loses the capability to keep the water out of other organs. The water may enter the lungs, cause edema or water retention that causes swelling of the body, or worse, it can enter the brain and cause it to swell. The effects of hyponatremia can range to mild discomforts like nausea to serious effects such as death.
- Infertility – The loss of menstrual cycle and the slew of other hormonal imbalances in women can lead to infertility or the inability to carry a baby to full term. If it doesn’t cause infertility, it may lead to giving birth to babies that have birth defects.
Does Your Teen Have an Eating Disorder?
Believe it or not, many people who have an eating disorder do not really know that they are in danger, or that they have a problem. Here are a few questions that you can ask your teen to determine if they have an eating disorder:
- Are you afraid of gaining weight?
- Do you eat when you feel hungry?
- Are you at a healthy weight? CDC has a BMI (Body Mass Index) calculator that you can use to confirm that.
- Are you always constipated?
- Do you exercise more than other young people your age?
- Do you feel panicky when you miss exercising for a day?
- Do you eat to the point of feeling uncomfortably full?
- Do you compel yourself to vomit or take laxatives after eating?
- Do you have sores in or around your mouth?
- Do you have swollen glands in the cheeks?
- Do you have irregular menstrual cycles?
- Are you constantly on a diet or trying to starve yourself?
- Do you eat only “safe” foods?
- Do you always take herbal supplements to aid in your weight loss?
- Are you obsessed with counting the calories of all the food that you eat?
If you find that your teen has these symptoms, it’s best to talk to them and confront the issue. It may be good if you can also visit your family doctor and therapist to consider what kind of interventions would be applicable for your teen. You’ll be surprised at how common this kind of problem is among teens, and you may also be surprised at the difference it would make if you take steps to help your teen towards self-awareness and healing.