Signs Your Teen May Have an Eating Disorder

teen girl checking her stomach
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Eating disorders frequently emerge during adolescence but often, the symptoms aren’t what parents might expect. Unfortunately, many eating disorders go undetected and untreated because parents don’t recognize the warning signs.

Learning how to spot the subtle warning signs of an eating disorder could help you catch a problem early.

Early intervention is key to addressing an eating disorder effectively.

Be on the lookout for the following warning signs that could indicate your teen may have an eating disorder:

1. Body Insecurity

While all teens can be a little self-conscious at one time or another, serious body image issues can be a more serious problem. If your teen says she’s fat or she complains about being ugly, take note. Her harsh self-criticism could lead to an eating disorder.

2. Skips Meals

If your teen frequently makes excuses--like saying he already ate at a friend’s house--he may be skipping meals. Crash dieting and fasting can be a precursor to an eating disorder.

3. Excessive Exercise

Sometimes teens try to compensate for their food intake with excessive exercise. Spending hours each day engaging in a cardiovascular activity or weight lifting can become an unhealthy obsession.

4. Picky Eating

Disordered eating often starts with picky eating habits. A teen who stops eating entire food groups or one who eats the same things for every meal may be on the path to a serious eating disorder.

5. Disappears After Meals

A teen with bulimia may make a fast exit after meals. In an effort to compensate for the calories that have been consumed, teens with bulimia may force themselves to vomit or they may use laxatives.

6. Wears Baggy Clothes

To disguise weight loss, a teen may wear clothes that are several sizes too big. If your teen hides under layers of clothes, especially when the temperature doesn’t call for it, take notice.

7. Stashes Food in the Bedroom

While it’s not unusual for a teen to have a snack or two in the bedroom, teens with eating disorders may stash large amounts of food. Empty boxes or wrappers or large quantities of food may be a sign of binge eating.

8. Cooking Big Meals for Others

Quite often, teens with anorexia want to be around food, even though they don’t want to eat. They may spend a lot of time researching recipes and preparing food to gain vicarious pleasure from watching others eat.

9. Avoids Eating in Public

It’s common for teens with eating disorders to have a phobia about eating in public. They may refuse to eat in restaurants, cafeterias, or at family gatherings.

10. Feels Cold All the Time

Teens with little body fat are likely to be cold all the time. If your teen complains she’s freezing, or she just can’t seem to get warm, it could be because she’s underweight.

11. Dry Skin

Skin problems are common in teens with eating disorders. Dehydration often accompanies bulimia and anorexia. Additionally, be on the lookout for calluses on the knuckles which are often the first signs that a teen may be inducing vomiting.

12. Swollen Cheeks

Purging causes swollen salivary glands, which causes the cheeks to look puffy. Swollen cheeks may happen at any stage of an eating disorder.

13. Rigid Eating Habits

While it’s good to check food labels, teens who are extremely rigid may have a problem. Be on the lookout if your teen obsesses over ingredients, as behavior often gets more restrictive over time.

Get Your Teen Checked Out

If you see warning signs of a potential eating disorder, talk to your teen’s doctor. A complete physical exam will be an important part of the assessment. If your pediatrician suspects your teen may have an eating disorder, you will likely be referred to a mental health professional for further assessment and treatment. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.