Changing Disordered Eating Patterns Before They Become Eating Disorders


The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius says, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” This concept can certainly be applied to a significant number of adolescents who have begun to exhibit signs of disordered eating.

The 21st-century social media boom has brought with it significant insecurities when it comes to both adolescent body image and eating habits. With social media prevalence, the “beauty ideal” has not only become severely skewed toward the unhealthy (this includes both excessive weight loss and weight gain), but dangerous eating habits have become normalized as well.

While social media cannot take full blame for disordered eating, it has certainly contributed. Yes, disordered eating has existed for an extensive period of time (examples can certainly be plucked from any era). Still, many believe that it has not been as prevalent as it is now in the adolescent arena.

Adolescents often exhibit plenty of signs of disordered eating. For some, if left unchecked, these unhealthy patterns can become eating disorders. Recognizing and helping to change unhealthy eating patterns early on can help prevent teens from developing a severe clinical diagnosis.

Awareness Regarding Disordered Eating in Adolescents

One of the most pivotal aspects in treating disordered eating is first recognizing it. Having an awareness of what to look for (the red flags) can help to both mitigate the effects of disordered eating and potentially impede the development of a more serious eating disorder.

Here are some of the red flags to look out for when assessing if disordered eating behavior may be present:

  • Excessively restricting diet (this may include not eating enough or becoming averse to “normal” foods due to a belief that they may cause weight gain)
  • Making excuses to avoid eating
  • Using over-the-counter supplements to quell the feeling of hunger and aid in weight loss
  • Binge eating or excessive eating throughout the day
  • Obsessing about weight loss, or excessive eating
  • An aversion to or the inability to eat in front of others

These are merely a few of the warning signs of disordered eating, but if any of them are present, it could be cause for concern. However, it is also important to assess whether what is being observed is disordered eating or simply a “poor diet” that many adolescents often indulge in.

Disordered Eating Versus “Poor Diet”

There are some significant differences between poor diet and disordered eating. The good news is that they are easily distinguished.

Here are some signs that a teen is merely exhibiting signs of a poor diet:

  • There is a clear correlation between weight gain and caloric intake from “processed” junk foods (these may include sugary sodas, energy drinks, fast food, and excessively salty and sugary snacks)
  • There is a clear correlation between avoiding healthy foods due to the want of less healthy alternatives (for example, avoiding broccoli due to taste is significantly different than avoiding food due to fear of weight gain)
  • Initial weight loss due to increased athletic activity (this is common when a school sport is taken on, but if excessive weight loss continues, it should be noted as a key for concern)

Being able to discern between poor eating habits and disordered eating habits is important. However, discerning between disordered eating habits and the presence of an eating disorder is even more crucial.

Red Flags for Adolescent Eating Disorders

It is critical to understand that there is a significant difference between disordered eating, which may develop into an eating disorder, and an eating disorder that is already present.

Here are some of the red flags that an adolescent eating disorder may already exist:

  • The adolescent is displaying visible physical symptoms, such as poor skin condition, hair loss, and gastrointestinal problems
  • The child is detected as having self-induced vomiting after meals or throughout the day
  • The level of body fat has become dangerously low
  • Organ failure
  • Using laxatives to help avoid weight gain or aid in weight loss
  • The inability to stop eating, even after it creates discomfort or becomes painful
  • The level of body fat has become dangerously high and begins interfering with everyday life
  • The child exhibits signs of self-harm or suicidal ideations due to body image

If any of these signs are discovered, professional help must be sought immediately, as eating disorders can have life-long consequences and can be fatal.

Treatment: The Why, When, and How

It is important to understand that treating an eating disorder is very serious work, often involving professional treatment and therapy. If you cannot provide the proper care, it is critical that you seek a facility that can.

Now, if disordered eating is discovered, it is also highly recommended that professional treatment be sought because there is a very real danger of an eating disorder developing. Even a poor diet, which is often just a sign of “normal” teenage behavior, should arouse a little more attention so it does not lead into the realm of disordered eating.

Sustain Recovery has professional care that can help with adolescent body image and eating habits. There is no need for senseless struggle when it comes to any aspect of adolescent mental health, including disordered eating.

It is critical that disordered eating in adolescents be recognized as soon as possible. However, it is important to understand that there is a difference between poor eating habits and disordered eating. Being able to distinguish these differences and recognize if there are signs of a more serious problem is vital. This early detection can better help get these children the proper care and treatment that they need. It is possible that, upon observation, no dangerous disordered eating habits are present, but it is important to know what to do if there are. We welcome you to inquire about our services. We are here to connect, inform, and help. For more information, please contact Sustain Recovery at (949) 407-9052.