Eating behaviour ranges from normal eating, to fussy eating and fad dieting, to conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Adolescence can be a risky time for unhealthy eating and poor nutrition.
Eating in adolescence
During adolescence, your child’s body and brain grow and develop very quickly. There are lots of changes going on in the way your child thinks, feels and relates to people. Many teenagers might also be more aware of their bodies, and become worried about their shape and size.
At the same time, your child needs more of the right kinds of food to support growth and development. Because teenagers are growing so much, it can be harder to keep up with their nutritional needs.
The demands of adolescence increases the need for some very important nutrients:
- Energy and protein: your child always needs these, but even more so during adolescence to meet the additional needs of physical development and growth.
Calcium: your child needs high amounts of calcium, to allow healthy bones to develop during adolescence.
Iron: your child needs more of this for the adolescent growth spurt, and girls need even more when they start getting their periods.
Zinc: this is important for growth and sexual development.
Vitamins: these support growth and general health.
Physical and emotional changes plus higher nutrition needs can add up to teenagers being at risk of eating problems and treating their bodies in unhealthy ways. Adolescence can also be a risky time for disordered eating and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified.
On the upside, adolescence is a great time for building on healthy food habits, so that your child goes into adulthood ready to make good nutrition choices. For example, it’s good if teenagers can enjoy a range of foods, eat when they’re hungry, and understand that ‘sometimes’ foods are just that.
Healthy family meals, teaching cooking skills, and modelling the right nutritional intake are some of the best ways to encourage these habits.
Your child will probably put on 15% of final adult height and 40% of adult weight during the adolescent growth spurt. That’s a lot of growing!
Why teenagers can be at risk of problem eating
Lifestyle and food habits might change as your child begins to eat more meals and snacks away from your family environment. In fact, making their own decisions about food and drinks is one important way that teenagers can develop autonomy and independence. But this is also a time when young people are more aware of and influenced by media messages and information at school about health, obesity and dieting.
Some of the changes you might notice in your child’s eating habits and attitudes towards food include:
- eating at random times and/or skipping meals
- eating more convenience foods and high-energy sugary snacks, including soft drinks and alcohol
- being more aware of media information about ‘healthy’ eating, obesity and diets
- experimenting with dieting and restrictive eating (that is, not eating certain foods or food groups).
Teenagers are going through social and emotional changes that mean they’re more aware of body image and very self-conscious about how they look.
The combination of body image concerns and media messages can lead some teenagers to start diets or develop eating habits that aren’t good for their growing bodies.
It’s not known exactly why some adolescent children develop eating disorders. But we do know that it’s not your fault. If your child has an eating disorder, your love and support will be very important in helping your child get better.
If you notice that your child has changed eating habits, mood and behaviour – particularly in relation to food – you need to talk with your child and a health professional as soon as you can. The conversations should be calm and non-judgmental. Emphasise your concerns about your child’s health and wellbeing, not weight and appearance.
‘Red flags’ for eating disorders include if your child:
- loses weight or goes up and down in weight – note that someone doesn’t have to be ‘thin’ to have an eating disorder (in fact, rapid weight loss in overweight teenagers can lead to an eating disorder)
- avoids social activities, particularly ones that involve food
- prepares food for others, but doesn’t eat it
- cuts down on portion sizes or shows other signs of highly limited eating and dieting
- cuts out ‘junk food’, and then cuts out major food groups such as meat or dairy
- goes to the bathroom or toilet straight after meals
- vomits or uses laxatives
- exercises too much, particularly while alone in the bedroom
- denies that there’s a problem.
Friends, teachers or coaches might also tell you that something isn’t right with your child.
You should also be concerned if you notice changes in your child’s body. These might include:
- irregular periods in your daughter, or periods stopping altogether
- your child seeming to be cold all the time
- your child complaining of feeling faint or dizzy, tired or constipated
- soft downy hair growing on your child’s face, arms or torso
- hair loss from your child’s head.
These changes are signs of weight loss, decreased body fat and poor nutrition.
Seeking an early assessment and opinion from a health professional is a really good idea. Early intervention for disordered eating can stop problem eating turning into a full-blown eating disorder. Also, it might be easier to get your child to see a health professional now than further down the track. If you step in early, you might be able save your child from intensive treatment and a very long recovery time.
Although research has looked more at the eating behaviour of adolescent girls, boys can also develop eating disorders.
Talking to your child
If you think that something just isn’t right about the way your child is eating or behaving around food, trust your judgment and talk to your child.
This could be a tricky conversation. You might feel really worried, and your child might get angry and say that there isn’t a problem. Even if this happens, try to stay calm and focus on your concerns about your child’s health. Tell your child that you think an assessment with a health professional is needed.
Great care needs to be taken in addressing health messages that touch on food, weight and body image. If you’re not sure how to talk about these issues, you could first visit a doctor, dietitian or mental health professional and ask for help. Contacting an organisation listed in the section below is another option.
If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits, it’s a good idea to take your child to see a GP, dietitian or mental health professional as soon as you can. If possible, try to find a health professional who has experience in the eating disorder field. A doctor can refer your child to a specialist eating disorder service if needed.
For adolescent eating disorder support services in your state, contact either your specialist children’s hospital or a state-based service listed below.
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
- Tasmania Recovery from Eating Disorders (TRED) – phone 0417 143 084
A book on disordered eating and eating disorders you might find useful is Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m Like, So Fat. New York: Guildford Press.