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Eating Disorders in Teen Girls

Adolescent girls are at a highly vulnerable stage in their lives. They’re navigating physical, hormonal, and emotional changes while facing new pressures and expectations—from society, their friends, and their families. Sometimes, this onslaught of change and social pressure can give rise to body image issues, lack of self-esteem, and disordered eating habits.

The causes of eating disorders vary, from genetics and trauma to family attitudes and surroundings. Whatever the causes are, it is critical for parents and caregivers to know the warning signs of disordered eating in their teenage daughters. It’s even more important to be proactive in intervening early and finding the best possible treatment options.

How Prevalent Are Eating Disorders Among Adolescents?

While it’s true that conditions like anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder affect people of all ages and genders, they are twice as prevalent in females than males, making adolescent girls an especially vulnerable population (1). In one study, 5.2% of teenage girls met the criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, and 13.2% had suffered from an eating disorder by the age of 20. 

Other research reveals additional info about the prevalence of eating disorders among adolescent girls:

  • Over the last 50 years, the only age group to see an increase in rates of anorexia is females aged 15 to 24.
  • Most athletes who suffer from eating disorders are female; among female high school athletes, 41.5% report disordered eating behaviors
  • Among female college athletes, 35% are at risk for anorexia, and 58% are at risk for bulimia.
  • Girls as young as six express concerns about body image, weight, and body shape; many report worrying about gaining weight or having a larger body type
  • Up to 40% of girls struggling with their weight are teased about their size by family members or peers.
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls practice extreme dieting and are 12 times as likely to binge eat.
  • 12.6% of female high school students take diet pills to lose weight without any medical advice. (2)

Eating disorders pose significant risks to a person’s physical and mental health. For adolescent girls, they can cause lifelong health issues and have severe consequences on every aspect of life, including social functioning, family relationships, academic performance, and self-esteem. Most importantly, eating disorders can be fatal if they aren’t treated. 

Myths About Eating Disorders in Adolescent Girls

  • Myth: Eating disorders only affect white, middle-class females. Fact: Research shows eating disorders are equally prevalent among White Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans, regardless of economic background (4).
  • Myth: Females suffering from eating disorders are always underweight. Fact: Many girls who suffer from eating disorders are average weight or higher-than-average weight.
  • Myth: Eating disorders are usually just a phase in adolescence. Fact: Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that can be life-threatening without intervention, treatment, and ongoing support.
  • Myth: Girls with eating disorders want to look a certain way and attract attention. Fact: Girls suffering from eating disorders often hide their bodies and dislike attention (5).
  • Myth: Most adolescent girls who have an eating disorder are anorexic. Fact: Binge-eating disorder is the most common type of eating disorder; it is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined (2).

Warning Signs of Eating Disorders in Teen Girls

While eating disorders almost always cause symptoms, those symptoms can masquerade (and be written off) as normal changes in adolescence.

For example, irregular menstrual cycles, skipping a menstrual cycle, or missing menstrual cycles are common side effects of an eating disorder. Unfortunately, menstrual cycle disturbances are common among adolescent girls without disordered eating behaviors (6). 

Many teens also develop unusual tastes in food or eating habits as they explore their individuality and become more independent. They may occasionally miss meals due to school work, extracurricular activities, or social events with friends. This can make it difficult for parents to differentiate between normal fluctuations in appetite and eating habits and the signals of disordered eating. Parents and guardians may also overlook excessive exercise if their teen is an athlete (7). 

Adolescent girls often become more body-conscious as they experience normal growth and physical changes during puberty and the teenage years. Expecting their teenage daughters to be preoccupied with appearance can cause parents to ignore or downplay symptoms of distorted body image or an unhealthy relationship with food.

Strategies for Early Intervention and Support

There are many practical steps parents and caregivers can take to help facilitate early intervention and support:

  1. Educate yourself. Learn about the signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with eating disorders in adolescent girls.
  2. Practice open communication. Foster an environment where your teenage daughter feels comfortable discussing her feelings, concerns, and struggles without fear of judgment or punishment.
  3. Keep an eye on behavior changes. Watch for changes in eating habits, such as restricting food intake, binge eating, or excessive exercise.
  4. Monitor social media use. Be aware of the influence social media has on body image and self-esteem, and monitor what type of content your teen views.
  5. Seek professional help. Consult with a healthcare provider or mental health professional for expert guidance on treatment options.
  6. Don’t wait. If you have a suspicion or see warning signs that your daughter may be struggling with disordered eating, act right away. The sooner you get treatment, the better. (8)

Creating a supportive and open environment is essential in helping an adolescent girl get help for an eating disorder. Try to normalize discussions about mental health, and let your teen know that it’s both normal and brave to seek help for emotional struggles. Avoid judgment and blame, and validate your teen’s feelings.

Other steps to creating a supportive environment include:

  • Provide accurate information and trustworthy resources on eating disorders and treatment options
  • Always try to model positive behaviors and attitudes toward food and body image
  • Avoid making negative comments about larger bodies, critiquing your own body size or weight, or pointing out weight gain or perceived imperfections in other people; avoid commenting on your teen’s body size, weight, or shape
  • Be persistent. Eating disorders are serious conditions and can be life-threatening. It’s crucial to be patient and not give up if your child isn’t immediately receptive to the idea of treatment

The Path to Resilience

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among all psychiatric disorders, making early intervention a life-saving measure. The longer an eating disorder persists, the more difficult it is to treat and the harder it may be to convince your teen that treatment is necessary for her to heal. 

Intervening early can lower your teen’s risk of developing mental health issues like anxiety and depression that are strongly associated with eating disorders. It also minimizes the risk of long-term complications from malnutrition (3). 

It is difficult to watch your child suffer and not know where to turn for help. Here at Toledo Center, our dedicated team of eating disorder specialists can help you find a treatment program that meets your daughter’s emotional, mental, and physical needs while giving her the tools for long-term recovery.

Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options. 


  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Eating disorders. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  2. National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Statistics. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  3. Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2019, May). Position statement on early intervention for eating disorders.
  4. Cheng, Z. H., Perko, V. L., Fuller- Marashi, L., Gau, J. M., & Stice, E. (2019). Ethnic differences in eating disorder prevalence, risk factors, and predictive effects of risk factors among young women. Eating Behaviors, 32, 23–30.
  5. University of Rochester Medical Center. (n.d.). Myths about eating disorders. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  6. Miller, R. R. (2018, December). Irregular periods. Nemours Teens Health.’s%20common%2C%20especially%20in%20the,influenced%20by%20events%20like%20these.
  7. UC Davis Health. (n.d.). What families need to know about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Retrieved March 1, 2024.
  8. National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (n.d). Friends, families, supports. Retrieved March 2, 2024.

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