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Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents

Childhood obesity has become a recurring theme in the news today. A variety of issues has been discussed regarding the cause of this popular issue. Emphasis is placed on parents, culture, school meals, and a number of other factors leading to obesity. Children and adolescents are not blind to the attention placed on obesity among them and their peers. If the thin bodies of magazines, TV and media weren’t enough, children now have to face the harsh realities of statistics that are constantly broadcasted in the news.

This being the case, many children and adolescents have developed unhealthy means to either get thin or stay thin. Many struggle with eating disorders.

Eating disorders involve a variety of descriptions of unhealthy patterns of eating. All of them involve some abnormal pattern of eating, including not eating. No matter the type or term given the disorder, they represent a serious situation and are a mental health concern. Two of the more well-known types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

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Both are common among youth.

Anorexia Nervosa Description

Sometimes just being ‘normal’ in size is not what an individual sees as normal in himself. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which being thin is not the only issue. It is characterized by starving oneself. Signs include a body weight of less than eighty-five percent the normal body weight for that specific height and age; 3 consecutive absences of a menstrual cycle; and an abnormally strong fear of gaining weight (e.g., “Eating Dis.” n.d., para. 12). A more common outward sign of anorexia is the intense fear of gaining weight. The youth may repeatedly express verbally his desire to be thin, his belief that he is fat or overweight, and a generally twisted view of own size or weight. All of this is typically coupled with an already thin body size. Use of laxatives in addition to severely limiting food intake is commonly seen.

Anorexia Nervosa Cause

The cause of anorexia is not one specific factor. It is widely agreed that many issues combine to lead to its development. These include social, cultural, psychological, and biological concerns. The role of neurotransmitters in anorexia is researched today. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter “known to affect appetite control, sexual and social behavior, stress responses, and mood” and “modulates feeding by producing the sensation of fullness or satiety” (Rome, 2003, p.100). A decrease in this neurotransmitter can be indicative of anorexia. There are also some indications of genetic factors involved in causing anorexia. Having a family member who suffers or has suffered from anorexia can predispose a child to development. “There are now multiple case-control studies designed to investigate the familiality of eating disorders, which demonstrate a higher rate of Anorexia nervosa in relatives of probands with anorexia nervosa” (Rome, 2003, p 101).

Bulimia Description

Another eating disorder common among children and adolescents is bulimia. Bulimia can actually be a subtype of anorexia. It is characterized by bingeing on food then purging the food via induced vomiting. The bingeing is considered uncontrolled and the person typically ingests much larger than normal amounts of food, sometimes secretively. Then, within an hour or two of eating, the person purges the food. This is usually done by self-induced vomiting; however, the vomiting is typically seen with misuse of laxatives, urine-producing medications, and enemas. All of these enable the individual to purge herself of the recently ingested large quantities of food.

These binges occur “at least twice a week for three months or may occur as often as several times a day” (e.g., “Eating Dis.” n.d., para. 23). As a subtype of anorexia, the bulimic person is abnormally underweight. Being underweight, however, is not a prerequisite of the bulimic diagnosis. In fact, the average bulimic is of normal weight, but sees self as being overweight. Other common attitudes associated with bulimia include extreme exercise, secretive or abnormal eating habits or rituals, and irregular or absent menstrual cycles. Both bulimia and anorexia are commonly seen in individuals already suffering from anxiety and/or depression (e.g. “Eating Dis.” n.d., para. 29).

Bulimia Cause

As with Anorexia nervosa, a specific cause for bulimia is not known. Several factors, however, are thought to increase the likelihood of this disorder; many of these are similar to those of anorexia nervosa. Cultural and social influences on appearance and size, family problems, and mood disorders all have an effect on the development of bulimia. Gender plays a large role as well. The majority of youth suffering from both bulimia and anorexia nervosa, although more so with bulimia, are females (Fisher, 1995, p. 431). The same case study cited in the familial causes of anorexia nervosa indicates that having a family member who has previously been diagnosed with bulimia can also predispose an individual to the same behavior.


Although Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia are two separate identifiable diagnoses, the treatments of these physical and mental disorders are similar. Physicians first analyze the individual’s specific overall health and possible contributing factors. The primary care doctor is the necessary authority to either treat or recommend for treatment. Possible physical effects such as malnutrition and dental issues are treated as needed. The mental and psychological treatment varies according to the child’s specific needs. Individual and family therapy, behavior modification, and cognitive therapy can all be used.

Focus primarily tends toward the development of adequate coping skills, positive body image, and positive self-talk. Frequently, mood stabilizers are prescribed in conjunction with one-on-one therapy (Rome, 2003, p. 104). The family plays a key role in treating children and adolescents most significantly by the fact that parents and adult figures in the child’s life control and direct the routine of said child. In cases of severely physically compromised children, monitoring of vital signs, nutrition, and electrolyte balance by trained healthcare professionals may be necessary (Fischer, 1995, p. 435).


Eating disorders are spread across both adults and youth. As increasing attention is given the issue of childhood obesity—and as the media continues to push the preference for abnormally thin figures in beauty—the youth will suffer. They seek unhealthy means to be what culture, family, and society says is normal, accepted. Bulimia and anorexia nervosa are the result of these issues and remain common eating disorders among children and adolescents. These disorders, however, can be diagnosed and treated. Most important to the treatment of any disorder affecting children and adolescents is the role of parents or guardians.

Eating disorders in children and adolescents (n.d.) In Eating Disorders. Retrieved from Ellen S. Rome, MD, Seth Ammerman, MD, et al. Children and adolescents with eating disorders: the state of the art. Pediatrics. 2003; 111: 98-108. Fisher M. Golden NH, Katzman DK, et al. Eating disorders in adolescents: a background paper. Adolescent Health. 1995; 16: 420-437.

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Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents. (2017, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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