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Common Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescents- Quick Reference Guide for Parents or Caregivers 

By Lee Neagle MA, LPC| 5 Min Read | June 28, 2024
Reference Guide for Parents or Caregivers to help understand the warning signs of anorexia in adolescents.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by food restriction, an intense fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, and in some instances binging and purging behavior. As a parent or caregiver, being able to recognize the warning signs of anorexia nervosa in your child is key for early intervention and ensuring effective treatment.  

In this blog, we highlight the most common symptoms and warning signs of anorexia parents or caregivers can look out for in their children. We also provide links to a free screening tool and previous blogs in which we highlight how you can support your child through treatment and recovery.  

Significant Weight Loss or Failure to Gain Weight

A common sign of anorexia nervosa in adolescents is significant weight loss or failure to gain weight during growth.

Parents may observe that their child’s clothes become loose-fitting, or they appear significantly and progressively thinner.  

Distorted Body Image

A hallmark sign for concern is even though the child is underweight or malnourished, adolescents with anorexia may continue to express dissatisfaction with their body size and shape and continue utilizing restrictive eating behaviors. They may perceive themselves as “fat” despite being severely underweight.

Body-checking behaviors such as pinching skin or repeatedly measuring their body parts are some warning signs of anorexia that parents may observe.

Obsessive Preoccupation with Food and Calories

Adolescents with anorexia nervosa often develop an obsessive preoccupation with food, calories, and nutritional content. They may diligently count calories, avoid certain foods or food groups regarded as “unhealthy,” and adhere to strict dietary rules. Parents may observe other behaviors such as meticulously weighing portions, visible distress when measuring portion size, obsessively studying food labels, or expressing distress over eating foods perceived as unhealthy.  

Social Withdrawal

Anorexia nervosa often leads to avoidance of social activities and isolation as the child becomes increasingly dedicated to their eating disorder behaviors and preoccupied with body image.

Parents may notice their child will avoid social gatherings where food is present or make excuses to skip meals with family members.  

Medical Complications

Anorexia nervosa can cultivate significant physical and health complications due to malnutrition, starvation, and purging. These symptoms can include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, fainting, hair loss, dry skin, and brittle nails.

In severe cases, anorexia nervosa can lead to serious medical complications such as electrolyte imbalances, cardiac irregularities, and organ damage.

It is extremely important to catch early warning signs of anorexia because delaying treatment can increase the risk of more significant complications.

Early intervention is key to increasing the effectiveness of treatment for adolescents suffering with anorexia nervosa. When parents observe changes in eating behaviors, fluctuations in weight, increases in social isolation or new medical complications they should seek professional support for their child immediately.  

Free Screening Tool

If you are concerned that your child may be suffering with anorexia we offer a free confidential eating disorder quiz on our website. The quiz is based on an empirically validated tool, the SCOFF, which consists of five simple questions. Once completed one of our compassionate team members will reach out to learn more about the situation and explore options for your family. You can click here to take the quiz.  

In addition, below you will find links to two blog posts describing how you can support your adolescent through an eating disorder as well as motivate older adolescents to seek treatment.  

Additional Resources:  

Click Here For: How to Support Your Adolescent Through an Eating Disorder.  

Click Here For: How to Encourage Older Adolescent Children (15-17 year olds) to Seek Treatment  

Frequently Asked Questions About Warning Signs of Anorexia

What are anorexia patients most likely to show behaviors like?

Anorexia patients are most likely to exhibit behaviors centered around extreme food restriction and an intense fear of gaining weight. They often display an obsession with calorie counting, rigid food rituals, and excessive exercise. These individuals might avoid eating in public and may use food-related behaviors to exert control over their environment. The preoccupation with body image leads to behaviors such as frequent weighing, body checking, and an intense focus on thinness.

Is anorexia nervosa an obsession?

Yes, anorexia nervosa can be described as an obsession. Individuals with anorexia nervosa are often fixated on maintaining an extremely low body weight, which leads to compulsive behaviors related to food intake, exercise, and body image. This obsession can dominate their thoughts and significantly impact their daily lives, often at the expense of other interests and activities.

What is generally true about people with anorexia nervosa?

People with anorexia nervosa generally exhibit a distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight, regardless of their actual body size. They tend to have a perfectionistic personality, with high levels of self-criticism and an intense need for control. This condition often coexists with other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Physical symptoms may include severe weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and various health complications resulting from prolonged starvation.

Who is most likely to be diagnosed with anorexia?

Adolescents and young adult females are most likely to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Although it can affect individuals of any gender or age, the majority of cases are seen in females, particularly those in their teenage years and early twenties. However, it is important to recognize that anorexia can also affect males and older adults.

Who is most vulnerable to anorexia?

Individuals most vulnerable to anorexia include those with a family history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions. People with personality traits such as perfectionism, high levels of anxiety, and low self-esteem are also at a higher risk. Social factors, such as cultural pressure to be thin, participation in activities or professions that emphasize weight (like ballet, gymnastics, or modeling), and experiences of trauma or abuse, can further increase vulnerability to developing anorexia.