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Eating Disorders Affect More Than Half Million Teens, New Study Says

Majority do not seek specific treatment for eating or weight problems

A new government study1 reports that more than half a million teens have had an eating disorder, most commonly in the form of binge eating disorder and bulimia, and that a majority seek no specific treatment for their eating or weight problems.

Key findings

The study, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that:

Teen with wrists bound by tape measure

  • Binge-eating disorder was the most common, affecting more than 1.5 percent of the teens studied;
  • Bulimia was found in just under 1 percent of the kids;
  • .03 percent had anexoria;
  • Overall, 3 percent had a lifetime prevalence of the disorders; and
  • Another 3 percent of kids questioned had troubling symptoms but not full-fledged eating disorders.
  • More than half the affected teens suffered from depression, anxiety or some other mental disorder. Sizeable numbers also reported suidal thoughts or attempts.

The study, by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, the Universities of Minnesota and Chicago, and the National Center for Scientific Research in Bordeaux, France, claims to be the largest and most comprehensive analysis of eating disorders, involving a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 teens aged 13 to 18. 

The rates were higher than in previous studies.  Although based on interviews with teens and their parents interviewed over two years ending in 2004, co-author and researcher Kathleen Merikangas of NIMH told the Associated Press that similar rates likely exist today.

Parents: talk to your kids, listen to gut

How can we deal with this important public health concern? Kimberly Dennis, M.D., medical director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in suburban Chicago, says it's critical for parents to talk to their kids about eating disorders as early as possible, and be open to the possibility their kids (or they) may have an unhealthy relationship with food.

"Parents don't want to believe their child might have a fatal disease, especially when in a lot of cases the teen is still doing well in school and even excelling in sports. And when they suspect a problem, parents a lot of times think it's ‘just a phase' and are in denial it needs to be addressed," said Dr. Dennis.

"In addition to the critical need for parents to talk to their kids, is the need for all ‘first responders' in a teen's life to be aware of this growing problem. Pediatricians, primary care doctors, school nurses, teachers and coaches need to be educated as well, and not be afraid to talk to teens about these issues; because early detection and treatment is critical to ensure a full and healthy life for these teens."

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives."

"More programs need to be developed to go into schools to not only speak to the students, but also to the school nurses, teachers and coaches. And parents need to get involved and be educated on the seriousness of these diseases," said Dr. Dennis.

She also encourages parents to listen to their gut and look for warning signs of eating disorders, like changes in behavior, including kids not eating with the family, frequent trips to the bathroom immediately after meals, changes in diet, and consumption of a large, unhealthy amount of food in one sitting.

"More of these studies are needed to get our heads around the scope of the problem. I believe that eating disorders are far more widespread than anyone realizes," said Dr. Dennis. "But recovery is possible when the right help is utilized and those most closely involved with these teens help them to get the help they so desperately need."


1. Swanson SA, Crow SJ, Le Grange D, Swendsen J, Merikangas KR. Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Arch. Gen Psychiatry 2011 (published online at http://archpsyc.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/archgenpsychiatry.2011.22)(accessed March 18, 2011)

Other sources: Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center (www.TimberlineKnolls.com

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