common eating disorders within teens

The Most Common Eating Disorders Among Teenagers

April 15, 2024

Eating disorders and the challenges brought by potentially harmful eating patterns affect the physical and emotional health of people of all ages. Depending on the illness, some eating disorder behaviors present as young as age five and can lead to life-long complications. While there is no cure for eating disorders, their symptoms and the resulting effects of those behaviors are highly treatable. With the proper treatment, it is possible to overcome eating disorder symptoms and develop a healthy relationship with food.  


About Teen Eating Disorders 

While often misunderstood and frequently stigmatized, eating disorders dramatically impact the lives of adolescents, teens, and adults across the nation. Eating disorders among teens are typically related to mental health and social health concerns such as stress, poor dietary habits, peer influence, diet fads, and pressure to “fit in” or “conform” to body image expectations associated with peer groups or athletics. It is crucial to mention that eating disorders, while more prevalent in adolescent and teen girls, occur in all genders and gender identities

Living with an untreated eating disorder can lead to lasting medical and mental health effects, regardless of the age of onset or how long the condition goes without treatment. Recent data from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests up to 3% of teens will meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder in their lifetime. As concerning as this statistic is, there is another that requires consideration; the number of teens who may have an eating disorder but do not seek help or meet the criteria to receive a diagnosis from a medical or mental health provider. For parents and caregivers to ensure their teens receive effective and comprehensive care, it is crucial to understand more about eating disorders and the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy relationship with food.  


Teen eating disorder statistics 

Eating disorders occur in people of all ages, but the average age of onset for most of the thought patterns that drive eating disorder behaviors is during adolescence. Recent studies on teen eating disorders suggest the following: 

  • Approximately 13% of teens will develop a diagnosable eating disorder before reaching age 20.  
  • About 4% of female and 1.5% of male youth have an eating disorder.  
  • As children age, the prevalence of eating disorders diagnoses increases. 
  • 1.6% of teens have a binge eating disorder or engage in binge eating disorder behaviors. 
  • Between 0.3 and 0.6% of teens have anorexia nervosa.  
  • .09% of teens have bulimia nervosa.  
  • Up to 22.5% of teens have Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.  Although the above four eating disorders are not the only eating disorder diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, they are generally the most common among adolescents and teens.   common eating disorders

Anorexia Nervosa in Teens 

Anorexia nervosa, more commonly known as anorexia, is a dangerous and potentially fatal eating disorder affecting approximately 0.5% of women nationwide. Statistics show that adolescents, teens, and young adults between the ages of 15 to 24 are 12 times more likely to die from symptoms related to anorexia nervosa than peers of the same age without anorexia. Because anorexia symptoms often present in early adolescence and during the teen years, it is vital for parents and caregivers to know the symptoms and signs of anorexia to ensure their child gets urgent and effective medical and emotional support.

Individuals with anorexia often severely restrict calorie and food intake. Although they may be significantly underweight, they continue to view themselves as overweight or “fat.” Because a symptom of anorexia involves the emotional fear of gaining weight or being overweight, a teen with anorexia will go out of their way to avoid eating foods, consuming calories or otherwise engaging in activities that could lead to weight gain. 

While anorexia is most commonly characterized by excessive thinness and dramatic weight loss, it is vital to remember that body shape is not the only symptom or even an accurate measure of potential anorexia symptoms. Not all people with anorexia are excessively thin or emaciated in appearance. It is possible to be of average weight or even slightly overweight for one’s age and still meet the diagnostic criteria for anorexia. Because of this, parents need to understand the other potential physical, behavioral and emotional signs and symptoms of anorexia. Common examples include: 

  • Thinning hair, brittle nails, and weakened tooth enamel 
  • skin rashes or dry skin 
  • Consistently feeling “cold” 
  • Frequently skipping meals or avoiding eating with family and friends 
  • Wearing large baggy clothes to cover up their appearance 
  • cutting food into small pieces, moving it around the plate, or appearing to “play” with their food to avoid eating it 
  • Complaints about feeling “fat” or obsessing over concerns with body image 
  • Fixating on weight loss diet trends such as no carbs or no fat diets 
  • Increasing changes in mood, including depression, anxiety, and moodiness Undiagnosed and untreated anorexia can lead to multiple medical and mental health complications for your teen. A short list may include anemia, late or absent menstruation, kidney failure, electrolyte imbalances, stomach problems, heart and blood pressure issues, memory loss, weakened bones and muscles, and chronic fatigue. In terms of emotional symptoms, reduced self-esteem, anxiety disorders, depression, and co-occurring substance use disorders are common.  

Bulimia Nervosa in Teens 

Bulimia nervosa (bulimia) is an eating disorder diagnosis characterized by excessive binging on food followed by compensation measures used to purge food and unwanted calories from one’s body. A teen with bulimia nervosa will frequently consume large amounts of food before immediately taking steps to “purge” what they have consumed. Purging occurs in many ways, including fasting, excessive exercise, laxative and diuretic abuse, and, perhaps most commonly, self-induced vomiting.  

Like anorexia, bulimia symptoms can be triggered by stressors, poor dietary practices, or as an attempt to manage symptoms of impaired body image or emotional trauma. The purging behaviors frequently associated with bulimia can be very harmful to your teen’s overall health. Some of the symptoms of bulimia, even after treatment, can persist for months or years and require comprehensive medical treatment to heal. 


Many of the most common symptoms of bulimia revolve around binge eating and purging. For example: 

  • Continuing to eat even though one is full or uncomfortably full 
  • Being unable to stop eating once they start 
  • eating excessive quantities of food in a limited period of time 
  • Expressing feelings of shame, anxiety, or guilt related to eating, body image, or body weight 
  • Skipping meals or extreme dieting to compensate for overeating 
  • Using purging behaviors to “fix” food and calorie intake 
  • Spending lots of time in the restroom immediately after eating 
  • Excessive exercise or other unhealthy weight loss measures such as diuretics, laxatives, and fad diets Without treatment and care, the behaviors and emotional impacts associated with bulimia can inevitably lead to other medical difficulties, including problems with bowels, erosion of tooth enamel, anemia, esophageal damage, cardiac arrest, hormonal imbalance, and potentially fatal cardiac events. Although the fatality rate linked to anorexia is often statistically higher than that of bulimia, untreated bulimia is no less dangerous.  

Teen Binge Eating Disorder 

It is not uncommon to confuse or combine binge eating disorder with bulimia nervosa. While the two conditions share similar symptoms, there are distinct differences, and both are listed as separate and distinct diagnoses in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Like bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder is characterized by eating excessive quantities of food in a short period. A teen with a binge eating disorder may eat in secret, hide food, eat until they are uncomfortably full, or eat notably faster than others. However, binge eating disorder differs from bulimia in that individuals with binge eating disorder do not engage in behaviors to compensate for excessive eating. Therefore, those with binge eating disorder are more likely to experience weight gain, frequent fluctuations in weight, and increased symptoms of depression due to eating behaviors. 


Teens and AFRID 

AFRID stands for avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Many teens with AFRID are sometimes labeled “picky eaters”; however, their symptoms may point to something more significant. Teens with AFRID may exhibit some symptoms similar to anorexia, such as significant weight loss, food avoidance, and nutritional deficiencies. But studies show that AFRID and anorexia differ in several ways. Compared to youth with anorexia diagnosis, adolescents and teens with AFRID are often significantly younger and less likely to experience cardiac concerns, menstrual deficiencies, or depression diagnosis. They were also less likely to exhibit sudden weight loss. However, ongoing patterns of chronic weight loss were more common. 

Additionally, youth with AFRID self-reported fewer anxiety symptoms, reduced self-esteem, concerns about body weight and image, and depression. However, it is essential to note that these differences do not reduce the potential negative implications of AFRID. Adolescents and teens with AFRID are more likely to experience significant nutritional deficiencies, reduced social functioning, and inhibited abilities to hit age-related growth targets. Without treatment, youth with AFRID are more likely to require oral nutritional supplements or become dependent on feeding tubes to maintain a healthy balance of nutrition. 


Mental Health Treatment at Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center  

The most effective way to overcome an eating disorder is to seek professional treatment at a treatment center that can provide skilled programming for your teen. At Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center, our team of caring, compassionate, highly skilled treatment providers will work with your teen and family to develop a treatment plan based on their needs and goals as they take their first steps towards eating disorder recovery. Recovery is not a one-step process. Healing and developing an understanding of the factors that led to eating disorder behaviors requires time and a lifelong commitment to developing a safer and healthier relationship with food. To learn more about our programs and how we can help, contact a member of our admissions team today.