It’s hard being a teenager. Body image issues, increased pressures in school and at home, and feeling out of control in an uncertain world may cause some teens to seek comfort through food. Occasional overeating is normal, but when binge eating becomes frequent and uncontrollable, it signals a larger problem.

Prevalence of Binge Eating in Teens

People with binge eating disorder (BED) consume large amounts of food in a short period of time. They do not attempt to purge the food afterwards, either through the use of laxatives or vomiting, nor do they engage in excess exercise in an attempt to prevent weight gain. It’s unclear what causes BED, but biological factors, environmental and psychological factors, and/or family history may play major roles.

According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, out of 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18, 1.6 percent were impacted by binge eating disorder. An additional 2.5 percent displayed symptoms of subthreshold binge eating disorder, meaning they exhibited some BED symptoms but not enough for a clinical diagnosis. The study concluded that many teens who binge on food do not seek treatment, which may lead to unhealthy eating habits that follow them throughout their lives. This, in turn, may increase the risk of developing serious emotional and physical complications. As a result, it’s important to recognize the signs of BED as early as possible, which raises the chances for a successful recovery.

Signs of BED in Teens

BED impacts both males and females. Warning signs in teens are similar to those in adults. Since many teens keep to themselves, tend to avoid their parents, and have difficulty discussing uncomfortable topics, it can be challenging to see the red flags.

Warning signs to look for include:

  • bingeing at least once a week for three months
  • eating more quickly than others
  • eating until uncomfortably full
  • skipping meals
  • eating large amounts of food, even when not hungry
  • eating alone due to embarrassment
  • feeling shame or guilt, or being depressed about binge eating

Other signs to look for are:

  • eating during or after emotional stress
  • finding empty food containers or wrappers hidden around the house or in your child’s bedroom
  • eating at unusual times, such as late at night

Teens with BED may try to compensate for their bingeing by continually dieting or restricting their food intake. If bingeing has caused weight gain, they may become self-conscious and suddenly avoid social situations or not want to attend school.

Getting Help

If you suspect that your teen has BED, how you approach the problem is critical. A significant first step is helping your child recognize and admit that there’s a problem. They may be reluctant to do this. The American Academy of Family Physicians offers tips for talking to your child:

  • stress that discussing the problem is mandatory
  • approach your child in a loving, nonjudgmental way
  • show concern and let them know you want to help
  • make sure they know you’re in this together
  • keep an open mind
  • be a good listener

After you’ve talked with your teen, contact your family doctor to determine the best course of action. Be sure to include your child in the discussion. Since BED affects the body and the mind, a combination of medical, psychological, and nutritional intervention is usually recommended.

Be a Great Example

You can help your child through the healing process by demonstrating healthy eating habits and positive self-esteem. For example:

  • don’t say negative things about your own weight or appearance
  • don’t criticize the weight or appearance of others
  • don’t criticize your child’s weight or appearance
  • don’t mock your child for eating too much

Instead, recognize that there is an emotional aspect to your teen’s bingeing that needs to be addressed.

Teens tend to binge on unhealthy foods such as chips, fries, candy, cakes, doughnuts, and other sugar- or salt-laden, processed foods. While you may not have control over the foods your teen has access to outside your home, you do have control over the foods you buy and bring into the house. Ditch the junk food and provide your child with healthy food options. Save sweet treats for special occasions.

BED, if left unchecked in teens, can be catastrophic to their health and quality of life. It creates unhealthy habits that are hard to break. With the proper help and support, however, teens can break the bingeing cycle. Showing love and support for their efforts throughout the healing journey encourages them to learn positive ways to deal with negative emotions and create eating behaviors to support a healthy future.