Puberty is a time when teenagers and preteens are especially susceptible to eating disorders. The constant bodily changes can be challenging, as can be grappling with parental control over food or other aspects of life. Teasing and peer pressure about weight can also play a role, as can transitions such as starting at a new school or moving.

While almost no one eats a perfect diet, two common eating disorders go far beyond the norm of a little extra junk food or a fad diet: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Both disorders have the potential to cause permanent damage and in some cases death. If you or anyone you know has one of these disorders or you think they may have one of these disorders, that person should seek medical attention.

A definition of anorexia from The Mayo Clinic:

People with anorexia are obsessed with food and their weight and body shape. They attempt to maintain a weight that’s far below normal for their age and height. In extreme cases, they may be skeletally thin but still think they’re fat. To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia may starve themselves or exercise excessively.

Although anorexia centers around food, the disease isn’t only about food. Anorexia is an unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems, perfectionism and a desire for control. When you have anorexia, you often equate your self-worth with how thin you are.

A definition of bulimia from The Mayo Clinic:

Bulimia is a type of eating disorder in which you’re preoccupied with your weight and body shape, often judging yourself severely and harshly for perceived flaws. With bulimia, you engage in episodes of bingeing and purging, where you eat a large amount of food and then try to rid yourself of the extra calories by such unhealthy ways as self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise.

Traits of Anorexia:
• Significant weight loss
• Refusing to eat and skipping meals
• Excessive exercise
• Belief that oneself is overweight or fat in spite of unhealthy weight loss
• Physical signs, including brittle nails, hair that is thin or falls out, growth of fine hair throughout the body, dry skin, constipation, dizziness, fatigue, a drop in body temperature resulting in feeling cold, and for women, not menstruating

Treating Anorexia:
Steps to treat anorexia, according to the National Institute of Health, include:

  1. Restoring the person to a healthy weight;
  2. Treating the psychological issues related to the eating disorder; and
  3. Reducing or eliminating behaviors or thoughts that lead to disordered eating, and preventing relapse.

Treating anorexia can be accomplished through psychotherapy, behavior therapy, nutritional guidance or nutritional therapy, medication, and, for treating the effects of anorexia, medical care. Without treatment, anorexia can result in heart, lung, bone, and kidney problems, fractures later in life, anemia, not menstruating for women and lower testosterone for men, and death.

Traits of Bulimia:
• Eating so much that it’s painful or almost painful—more than a normal meal or snack
• Vomiting during or after a meal (notice a person using the restroom during or immediately after meals on a regular basis) or exercising excessively after a meal
• Use of laxatives
• Negative body image
• Physical signs, including severe dehydration, throat and mouth sores, damaged gums and loss of tooth enamel, fatigue, dry skin, swollen neck and throat glands, gastroesophageal reflux disorder, and for women, irregular or no period

Treating Bulimia:
Treatment of bulimia, according to the National Institute of Health may involve psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, nutritional counseling, and in some cases medication. Untreated, bulimia can cause anemia, heart problems and heart failure, constipation, bloating, nausea, low electrolyte levels (sodium, potassium, and chloride), tooth decay, not menstruating for women, and death.

Often Neglected Facts about Anorexia and Bulimia:
• While anorexia and bulimia are more common in women, men can be anorexic or bulimic, too
• It is possible to be bulimic and still be at a healthy body weight
• Anorexia and bulimia are not likely to go away by themselves

What to Do:
If you or someone you know has several of the symptoms of anorexia or bulimia, you should tell a trusted adult such as a parent, teacher, or school counselor. If you are anorexic or bulimic, go to your doctor to be evaluated and be open to treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy and nutritional therapy. If a friend is anorexic or bulimic, encourage them to seek medical attention; if they don’t, you should tell their parents or a trusted adult who can relay the message to their parents in order to ensure that your friend gets the medical treatment they need. While your friend may be upset by this, showing your concern and being a supportive friend is important.