National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Eating disorders Simplified for Teenagers

This week is National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Awareness Week.  As people work to spread the word about this noble cause I often find that we are flooded with information that can be difficult to digest at once.  Sometimes it can be helpful to compile some basic information that is easy to understand and take in.  So here are some of the most recent statistics and health effects of eating disorders I was able to compile as well as some simple, straight forward definitions.  This information is important because eating disorders have very high mortality rates compared with other mental health disorders.  Women are more likely to suffer from eating disorders but men can also be diagnosed.  The last part of this blog talks about how these eating disorder may affect teenagers.

Anorexia Nervosa is a diagnosis given to people who are becoming dangerously underweight because they refuse to eat enough to stay healthy.  People with this diagnosis may also vomit on purpose to stop from gaining weight or use laxatives for the same reason. This refusal to eat or keep food down is caused by on a psychological problem that leads these people to believe that they are overweight when they are in fact starving themselves.  This is a dangerous psychological disorder and 4% of people who are given the diagnosis will starve to death.   

Bulimia Nervosa is a diagnosis given to people who may not be dangerously underweight but still refuse to eat and may make themselves vomit.  The major difference between Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa is that people with Bulimia Nervosa are not underweight.  Although this difference is important, people diagnosed with Bulimia Nervosa also have a high mortality rate, 3.9%.  The cause of this disorder is similar to the cause of Anorexia Nervosa, a psychological disorder that leads people to believe that they are overweight.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified is a diagnosis given to people who appear to have significant problems with their eating habits and suffer serious health effects, but do fit neatly into either group above.  This diagnosis has a mortality rate that is higher than either Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, 5.2%. 

Common Health Effects of Eating Disorders:


  • Heart muscle shrinkage
  • Slow and irregular heart beat
  • Brittle hair or hair that falls out
  • Heart failure
  • Irregular or stopped menstrual cycle
  • Kidney stones and kidney failure
  • Growth of excessive fine body hair on face and body
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Problems with defecation and bowel irritation
  • Constipation
  • Weak and fragile bones
  • Teeth erosion and cavities
  • Tears in throat and stomach
  • Laxative dependency
  • Overdose on medicine that makes you vomit
  • Death


Eating disorders tend to end in three different ways.  One third of people tend to recover after their first episode.  One third of people go back and forth from recovery to relapse.  And one third of people get worse and worse over time.

Treatment for eating disorders must involve both psychological and medical treatment.  Individual and group therapy are often recommended as well as close monitoring by a medical professional.  It is very important that these two services work together and that the professionals are communicating. 

Teenagers, especially girls, are vulnerable to eating disorders for many reasons.  Typically, teenagers will try to hide their eating disorder so that no one will try to stop them.  They may do this by wearing baggy clothes or refusing to show their arms or legs.  They will often spend long periods of time in the bathroom.  As a parent you may notice that there are dramatic fluctuations in a teenager’s weight. Teenager may also eat very large quantities of junk food and then feel crushing guilt about it that may motivate them to make themselves vomit. They may be obsessively concerned with their appearance and constantly talk about the appearance of others.  Their self-esteem can seem to be completely tied up in how they see themselves physically.  If these symptoms are familiar to you it is very important that you take your teenager to the doctor for a physical examination and make arrangements for them to receive counseling services.  As a parent is it also important to make sure that your teenager’s doctor and your teenager’s counselor are talking to each other. 

Please help spread awareness by sharing this article. Thank you!

Some of the information above was taken from these two sources:

Crow, S.J., Peterson, C.B., Swanson, S.A., Raymond, N.C., Specker, S., Eckert, E.D., Mitchell, J.E. (2009) Increased mortality in bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry 166, 1342-1346.

Fact Sheet from the Eating Disorders Coalition

By Miguel Brown