Eating disorders may signal deeper mental health issues in teens.

Experts say teenagers—boys or girls—between 13 and 19 years old are particularly susceptible to eating disorders that are largely categorised as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.

Mental Health Issues in Teens

In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Lee Huei Yen, Director of the Eating Disorders Programme at the Singapore General Hospital said teens are vulnerable as they are going through a stressful period in their lives — they are discovering self-identity, independence and adjusting to major changes to their bodies.

Eating disorders and mental health issues in teens are often related to stress factors.

Other stress factors can include bullying, toxic relationships, and the idolisation of supermodels.

Dangers of Social Media on Youth

Easy access to the Internet and myriad “thin-spiration” (images of very skinny women, especially on Instagram) and “Pro-ana” (promotion and affirmation of behaviour related to eating disorders) sites are shape concepts of body image and are exacerbating the situation too, said experts.

Teen boys are susceptible to eating disorders too. The “fit-spiration” trend, which showcases images of ripped bodies on social media and Internet as a form of inspiration to get chiselled, toned bodies, can give them undue pressure to bulk up, over-exercise or diet excessively. Acute exposure[1] to “fit-spiration” images can lead to increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction according to researchers from the Flinders University. The controversial Korean “mukbang” or “live” Internet broadcasts of women binge-eating have led critics to question if the trend glorifies binge-eating or bulimia nervosa.

Other trends that might promote unhealthy perceptions of weight and size include the notion of having a “thigh gap” and also the “A4-waist challenge”, that went viral on Chinese social media, which encourages individuals to strive for a waist that is no bigger than a piece of A4 paper.

Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

Here are some warning signs of eating disorders identified by the SGH Eating Disorders Programme:

  • Odd rituals such as cutting food into small pieces
  • Fear and avoidance of situations involving food
  • Avoidance of eating in public
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom, especially after eating a significant amount of food
  • Frequent weighing
  • Denial of hunger
  • Binge eating
  • Secretive eating
  • Eating very slowly or very rapidly
  • Cooking a lot for others without eating
  • Excessive beverage consumption, especially beverages with caffeine
  • Excessive gum chewing
  • Rigid or excessive exercise regime
  • Use of laxative, diet pills, fasting or purging to get rid of food
  • Fear of becoming fat, regardless of weight
  • Dressing in layers and baggy clothes
  • Preoccupation with food and weight
  • Self-worth determined by weight
  • Severe self-criticism
  • Mood shifts
  • Social withdrawals
  • Need for approval to feel good about self

Related: Raising Healthy Kids

Eating Disorders in Young People – 7 Tips for Parents

While there is no sure-fire way to prevent an eating disorder, here are some tips for parents:

Allow your children to express themselves without any judgement.

#1 Praise them for their values, qualities and effort

Make your children feel good about themselves by focusing your praise on their personal qualities, values and achievements, rather than on how they look or are dressed as these statements can lead to eating disorders in young people.

#2 Be positive role models for young adults

Your children can see if you love and accept your own body. A parent obsessed with dieting, and who often criticises his/her own body is likely to influence his/her children to do the same. Likewise, a parent who embraces his/her body and has a healthy relationship with food and exercise would be a positive role model for a young person.

#3 Introduce other positive role models

Locally, there’s the Rock The Naked Truth movement to encourage men and women to embrace their bodies. Check out these other body-positive role models like @mynameisjessamyn and @joannathangiah on Instagram.

#4 Keep an open mind on what “beauty” is

Discuss with your children what real beauty means — with attributes such as a positive personality, good character, as well as being authentic and comfortable in one’s skin. This also means recognising that beauty standards and body image differ around the globe[2], and can be interpreted in different ways[3]. And children should be guided on what are realistic beauty standards, that there are other ways to be attractive without punishing their bodies.

#5 Don’t judge young adults with depression and eating disorders

Follow through by not judging what others eat, wear or look like. A study[4] published in the Body Image Journal reported that negative comments from mothers could lead to greater body dissatisfaction, which was linked to eating disorders.

#6 Teach them to be media literate especially about body image

Help your children understand the reality behind glossy, airbrushed magazine covers by showing them videos[5] of how photographs can be digitally edited to become “more perfect”. Use these resources to discuss how this common media practice can lead to unrealistic expectations and hence, body dissatisfaction.

#7 Talk without judgement about eating habits.

Children of both genders are impressionable. If you recognise that your child might be having an eating disorder, encourage them to express themselves and help them find ways to cope.

Eating disorders are treatable and you should seek help for your child as early as possible. You can call the SGH Eating Disorders Programme at +65 6321 4377 or email, or contact SAMH Insight Centre at 1800 283 7019.

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  1. Tiggermann, M., Zaccardo, M. (2015, Sep). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women's body image. Body Image, 15, p. 61-67.
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  2. Crum, M. (2016, May 11). This Is What Beauty Looks Like Around The Globe [The Huffington Post].
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  3. Murano, G. (2015, Sep 20). Another 9 Of The Most Unusual Models [ODDEE].
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  4. Chng, S. C. W., Fassnacht, D. B. (2016, Mar). Parental comments: Relationship with gender, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating in Asian young adults. Body Image, 16, p. 93-99.
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  5. Grossman, S. (2015, May 4). This Time-Lapse Video Shows How Much Photoshop Is Used in High Fashion Photography. TIME.
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