February 23, 2023

Eating disorders on the rise among teens

Expert shares 5 valuable tips for parents and guardians to help children maintain a healthy relationship with food.

Eating disorders can take a toll on a child’s physical and mental health, causing potentially dangerous behaviors that, if left untreated, can persist into adulthood and even lead to fatal medical complications.

The disorders, which include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, affect people of all genders, races, and ethnicities. A variety of behaviors and symptoms may be associated with eating disorders in adolescents and young adults, including rapid weight loss, obsessing about food and weight, distorted body images, and avoiding public eating situations.  

“The hard part about eating disorders and disordered eating patterns is that the goal is always to catch things as early as possible because they're a lot easier to treat,” said Evita Limon-Rocha, MD, MPH, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist from Kaiser Permanente’s Riverside service area.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa estimates that nearly 1 in 10 Americans will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime, many during their teens. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp increase in eating disorders among teenagers, including inpatient admissions for young adults and adolescents, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in November 2022.

In a recent video interview, Dr. Rocha said the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted teenagers and their relationship with food. “I feel like during the pandemic, viewing social media really impacted a lot of the teens that I saw because of the images that they were seeing. Over time, they became hyperfocused on their appearance and developed eating disorders that were pretty severe,” she said.

Dr. Rocha says parents or guardians play a crucial role in preventing eating disorders and helping their children maintain a healthy relationship with food. She offered 5 important tips for parents and guardians about eating disorders.

1. Model a positive relationship with food

Children are watching their parents and the way they interact with food. It's important for parents or guardians to have a positive relationship with food and to show that food is essential for nutrition and overall health.

2. Avoid negative comments about appearance or body

The media critiques the appearance of individuals, and sometimes family members can feed into this by making negative comments about individuals they see on television or in their day-to-day lives. Instead, focus on celebrating the body and health and not criticizing or speaking negatively of other bodies.

3. Celebrate the body

Parents can start early by talking positively about the body and celebrating muscles and exercise as a celebration of what the body can do rather than a way to change or alter appearance.

4. Provide a safe and supportive environment

Create a safe space for children to talk about all sorts of different things, including their relationship with food.

5. Seek help as soon as possible

If you don't know where to turn, speaking to your child’s pediatrician is a great first-stop resource for information. Seeking professional help and treatment is essential because eating disorders can cause serious harm to health, including kidney damage and heart problems.

Kaiser Permanente research scientists have published nearly 700 articles related to adolescent health since 2007, including on cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders.

Watch the full interview with Evita Limon-Rocha, MD, MPH, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist from Kaiser Permanente’s Riverside service area, and see if there may be helpful information for you or someone you know.