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Introduction to adolescent mental health
Introduction to adolescent mental health

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4 Eating disorders

Eating disorders most commonly start in the mid-teens and can become serious illnesses.

In economically advanced countries, it is estimated that the proportion of adolescents and young adults experiencing eating disorders is approximately 3% (30 in a thousand) females and 0.1% (one in a thousand) males. It is easy to underestimate the amount, however, because not everyone seeks help and it can be difficult to conduct surveys that are truly representative of a community (AYPH, 2019).

A piece of artwork of a person at a dining table with a cross over their mouth. The artwork is illustrating an eating disorder.
Figure 5: Eating disorder

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), an eating disorder is when you have an unhealthy relationship with food which can take over your life and make you ill. It might involve eating too much or too little, or becoming obsessed with controlling your weight (NICE, 2017, p. 2).

Eating disorders can be a way of coping and/or expressing emotional distress. Causes of eating disorders are varied and are thought to include:

  • low self-esteem, depression or anxiety
  • family history of eating disorder and inherited genes
  • relationship difficulties, peer pressure to be thin or bullying (Bould et al., 2017).

A young person with anorexia nervosa, for example, becomes preoccupied with weight and body shape and tries to lose weight by restricting food intake, exercising, inducing vomiting or using laxatives. Limiting food intake can be a way of feeling in control and coping with life but the young person can also feel as though the illness controls them. It is common to deny weight loss, have an extreme fear of gaining weight and resist offers of help.

In the next activity, you’ll hear about three types of eating disorder.

Activity 4: Dealing with an eating disorder

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch this video, a cartoon-style explanation of different eating disorders.

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Video 2: Different eating disorders
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Pick out three common themes relevant to all the types of eating disorder mentioned in the video: Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa, and Binge eating disorder.

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Here are three themes that can be picked out:

  • Obsession with body shape and food intake.
  • A sense of control or lack of control over eating.
  • Being secretive about eating.

You may also have noticed the warning signs to look out for, such as noticeable weight loss, feeling tired and cold, eating very fast or very slowly, frequently going to the bathroom after eating, and excessive exercising.