The Scary Truth About Teen Eating Disorders: Causes, Effects, and Statistics

Teen eating disorder facts aren’t always easy to find. There are many different types of eating disorders, and there are many different opinions about what causes them and how to treat them.

What is not disputed is that eating disorders are extremely common. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their life. Eating disorder types include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. While these are the most common eating disorders names, there are also other, lesser-known types known by mental health professionals as an OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder).

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Truth About Eating Disorders

Eating disorder statistics over the past century show the frightening growth of this mental illness. The incidence of eating disorders has been steadily increasing since 1950, NEDA reports. This includes eating disorders among adolescents. Each decade since 1930, the number of anorexia nervosa cases among young women ages 15 to 19 has increased. In addition, the incidence of bulimia in women between the ages of 10 and 39 tripled between 1988 and 1993.

Eating disorders disproportionately affect teens: These disorders are most prevalent in those between the ages of 12 and 25. Eating disorders in children under 12 are also a danger, however. Because their bodies are smaller, weight loss caused by refusing to eat can create significant health issues quickly.

There are many aspects to the cause and effect of eating disorders. An eating disorder definition doesn’t tell the full story of the harmful impact of these deadly mental illnesses.

Read a full list of eating disorders and eating disorders symptoms.

Teen Eating Disorders Are Deadly

Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a result of an eating disorder. The high death rate associated with anorexia is what makes eating disorders the deadliest of all mental illnesses. A review of nearly 50 years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Anorexia statistics for teen girls and young women are especially alarming: For females between 15 and 24 years old who suffer from anorexia nervosa, the mortality rate associated with the illness is 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death.

While the mortality rates for bulimia and binge eating are not as high as for anorexia, these eating disorders also have a significant impact on overall health.

The Netflix film To the Bone dramatizes the horrifying impact of anorexia on the body and mind. Chelsea Reeves, CADC, Director of Alumni Services at Newport Academy, spoke about the film in a live segment on ABC 7 Los Angeles. She explained that To the Bone does a great job in creating conversation and awareness about eating disorders, as well as the underlying issues that can cause them.

Watch the full interview.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Truth About Eating Disorders

The Dangerous Health Impact of Anorexia

Anorexia has both long-lasting and life-threatening effects on physical health. Consequently, this eating disorder can permanently damage the body. The negative health impact of anorexia on teens and adults can include the following:

  • Fainting, fatigue, and weakness
  • Low blood pressure and abnormally slow heart rate, increasing the risk for heart disease and heart failure
  • Muscle loss
  • Severe dehydration, which can lead to kidney failure
  • Brain shrinkage due to lack of nutrition, leading to decreased cognitive function
  • Permanent loss of bone density: Nearly 90 percent of women with anorexia have osteopenia and 40 percent have osteoporosis
  • Infertility, due to compromising of the hormonal system.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Truth About Eating Disorders

 The Types of Anorexia

There are two main types of anorexia. Both types are characterized by irrational fear of weight gain and abnormal eating patterns. The restrictive type is what most people associate with this mental illness: The individual rigorously limits food intake, effectively starving the body of the nutrition and calories it needs.

However, there is also a type of anorexia known as binge/purge anorexia, in which an individual purges after eating. Thus, this type of anorexia results in additional health problems, which are also caused by bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

Another category of anorexia is known as atypical anorexia. In these cases, the individual meets some but not all of the criteria for anorexia. For example, they might restrict their food intake but not be underweight.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Scary Truth About Teen Eating Disorder

 The Effects of Binge-Eating and Purging on the Body

The binge-and-purge cycle of bulimia and binge/purge anorexia has dangerous consequences. It affects the entire digestive system, which can lead to damage to the heart and other major organs. The impact on the body includes the following physical symptoms:

  • Electrolyte imbalance, caused by dehydration and loss of nutrients, which can lead to irregular heart rate and potentially heart failure
  • The risk of gastric rupture during bingeing behavior
  • Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus caused by vomiting
  • Tooth decay and staining as a result of stomach acids released during vomiting
  • Bowel issues due to overuse of laxatives
  • Ulcers.

Binge-eating disorder can also result in many of these health issues. This eating disorder is defined as when binge eating occurs at least once a week for a period of three months. In addition, binge-eating disorder has many of the same health risks as obesity, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated triglyceride levels (which can lead to heart disease), diabetes, and gallbladder disease.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Scary Truth About Teen Eating Disorder Patterns

OSFED

An OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) is an eating disorder that does not meet the specifications of the three main types of eating disorders. They include the following:

  • Pica: Eating non-food items, such as hair, dirt, or paint chips
  • Rumination disorder: Chewing food for an extended period of time
  • Orthorexia: An obsession with “healthy” eating that may result in an inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods.

 The Causes of Eating Disorders

There are a variety of eating disorders causes, according to health-care professionals and researchers. Over the decades, much attention has been paid to the impact of media and body image on eating disorders. When a teen has a negative body image, they may strive in unhealthy ways to achieve what the media portrays as the “ideal” body. A 2015 report by Common Sense Media founds that kids’ consumption of mainstream media puts them at risk of developing unhealthy approaches to their bodies.

Read “The Impact of Fashion on Teen Body Image and Mental Health.”

However, most researchers point to a combination of psychological, genetic, biological, and social factors in explaining what causes one to have an eating disorder. Furthermore, many experts agree that, at their roots, eating disorders are not really about wanting to be thin. Rather, they are expressions of underlying issues such as depression, trauma, and anxiety. Controlling food intake becomes a form of self-medication—a way to manage the pain and discomfort.

Eating Disorders and Mental Health

Eating disorders almost always co-exist with another mental health issue. Here are some findings of a National Institute of Mental Health study of 10,000 teenagers (ages 13 to 18) with eating disorders:

  • The study showed significant impairment in day-to-day functioning, as well as suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
  • About a third of those with bulimia, 15 percent of those with binge eating, and eight percent of those with anorexia had attempted suicide.
  • In addition, 55 to 88 percent reported such problems as anxiety, depression, or a behavioral disorder.
  • Teens with eating disorders are also at greater risk for substance abuse and self-harming behavior.
  • Researchers found that the majority of teens with eating disorders did have contact with mental health care, school services, or general medical services. But, less than a third had talked with a professional about their eating or weight problems.

Moreover, according to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, as many as 50 percent of those with an eating disorder also abuse drugs.

 Anxiety, PTSD, and Eating Disorders

Moreover, researchers have found that those with eating disorders frequently suffer from anxiety disorders and/or PTSD as well. Research shows that individuals with eating disorders often experience stress-related symptoms, such as:

  • Perceiving threats or hostile intent from others
  • Preoccupation with the possibility of negative consequences
  • Sensitivity to punishment
  • Difficulty adapting to change
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Scary Truth About Teen Eating Disorder Behaviors

Other Causes of Eating Disorders

Genetics: Heredity plays a role. Eating disorders often aggregate in families. Studies of twins reveal that genetic factors account for 40 to 50 percent of eating disorder risk factors, including teen anorexia, teen bulimia, and teen binge-eating disorder.

Brain Functioning: There is a connection between eating disorders and brain functioning. Imaging studies have linked eating disorders to irregular brain activity patterns.

Perfectionism:recent study linked eating disorders to perfectionism in teens. For some teens, eating disorders are fueled by parental expectations and rigid thinking patterns.

Eating Disorders Treatment 

Eating disorders treatment takes many forms. The mental illness is successfully treated a number of ways. However, the biggest problem is that only about a third of those with eating disorders receive treatment.

Once an individual seeks treatment, it may involve several levels of care: intensive outpatient, residential, or, if the person is medically unstable, in a hospital setting.

Once a person with eating disorders is stabilized medically, several different forms of individual and group therapy can help foster sustainable healing from a teen eating disorder:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT brings clarity and valuable insight for a teen in crisis. CBT identifies the emotions that often result in a sense of isolation. It addresses in a positive way the self-defeating thoughts and assumptions that make life more difficult.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): DBT provides specific skills like mindfulness and emotional regulation. These skills can be used right away and become stronger with practice.
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET): MET leads to transformation and healing by helping teens make positive choices.
  • Experiential therapies are particularly powerful for teens with eating disorders. These include adventure therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and Equine-Assisted Therapy. These modalities help teens explore their emotions and build strength through creative expression and somatic integration.
  • Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation have been shown to be effective in combating teen eating disorders.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Truth About Eating Disorder and Nutrition

Family Involvement in Treating Eating Disorders

Treatment that involves the whole family is particularly effective for adolescents with eating disorders. One family-based treatment approach known as the Maudsley Method, or Maudsley Approach, includes all family members as an essential part of treatment. This includes re-establishing healthy eating, restoring weight, changing the disordered eating behavior, and addressing underlying mental health issues. According to research from Stanford University, family-based therapy for teens with anorexia is twice as effective as individual psychotherapy in producing full remission.

“The model of putting kids in the hospital, which excludes parents, or of professionals expecting young adolescents to manage their own eating without their parents’ help when they’re immersed in anorexic thinking, really should be reconsidered.”

—James Lock, MD, PhD, Stanford University researcher

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Scary Truth About Eating Disorder Statistics

A Holistic Approach to Teen Eating Disorder Treatment

A holistic approach is the most effective way to treat eating disorders and their underlying mental health challenges, using evidence-based methods. Such an approach includes

  • Professional healthcare providers, including include a physician, a nutritionist, an individual therapist, and a family therapist
  • Support within a nourishing, empathic community of peers
  • Good nutrition and a comprehensive approach to health
  • Evidence-based clinical and experiential therapeutic modalities.

This approach fosters true long-term recovery from teen eating disorders.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: The Scary Truth About Eating Disorder Facts

Sources:

National Eating Disorders Association

Eating Disorders Coalition 2016 Report

Common Sense Media

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011 Jul;68(7):724-31.

Am J Psychiatry. 1995 Jul;152(7):1073-4.

Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb 1; 61(3): 348–358.

Australian & NZ Journal of Psych 46(2) 118–131.

Eat Disord. 2007 Jul-Sep;15(4):285-304.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Oct; 67(10): 1025–1032.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash