Eating Disorders and Nutrition in Teens and Young Adults

Teens need slightly more calories than adults of the same size do because they are still continuing to grow and are still developing both internally and externally. There are three eating disorders that can seriously affect the health and happiness of these teens, including obesity/overweight, anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Each is serious for different reasons and must be dealt with to address the physiological and psychological aspects of these disorders.

Teens typically have poor food habits, leaving them open to deficiencies in necessary nutrients. The most common of these are calcium, zinc and iron, however there are a number of other vitamins and minerals that teens just do not get enough of on a regular basis either. Follow the typical American teen around for a full day and you will probably be taken on a tour of the area’s fast food eating establishments. They feast on huge burgers, dripping with grease and slices of pizza that may account for more than a 1/3 of their daily calories.

Even teens who have suddenly “gone” vegetarian may not be getting the right nutrients because they do not know how to balance the foods that they eat, and may be eating only one food group at a time. One teen vegetarian was reportedly living on macaroni and cheese and some fruits, causing her mother to bring her to the doctor. The girl was deficient in a large number of micronutrients among other health concerns. Not only did the girl need a number of supplements to restore her health, she needed a lesson in proper nutrition as well. It is a myth that vegetarians and vegans do not get enough of the proper nutrition: if they eat a varied and well balanced diet they get everything that their bodies need to be healthy and strong, including protein (Source: the Vegetarian Society).

The number of US teens that are overweight has tripled in recent years rising from around 5% in 1980 to over 17% in 2004. These teens are more than twice more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers in 14 other industrialized countries and tend to be in poorer health, with the incidence of hypertension, cholesterol problems and Type II Diabetes far higher as well (Source: Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008)

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is predominantly seen in young women, although it can affect anyone of any age and both genders. It is thought to be caused by emotional, psychological and social factors rather than physical motivations. There are studies that suggest that anorexia has some hereditary basis and statistically the condition appears more often in girls who were born prematurely or in those who had sustained trauma during a difficult birth (Source: Carlson, 2008).

Anorexia is very serious with less than 50% of the patients ever making a full recovery. Five to ten percent of the girls treated for anorexia will die from complications of their disease or from suicide. Most anorexics develop osteoporosis and are at great risk for serious bone fractures that may never heal properly because of the lack of nutrition to do so. They also tend to stop menstruating and may have hair loss, weak, brittle nails and dry skin. More seriously, they tend to have enlarged hearts and shrunken brain tissue. They will often become obsessed with exercise, pushing themselves to continue exercising despite the fact that they are not eating at all. As they continue to push themselves, they will start breaking down muscle tissue to burn as energy, leading to a loss of lean mass.


Bulimics will alternately eat huge amounts of foods (binge) and then throw it up (purge) in a cycle that they will soon lose control of. Bulimics get caught up in this cycle and will find new ways to make themselves vomit long after they have lost the gag reflex and will also abuse laxatives, possibly leading to the loss of sphincter control as well. Women are ten times more likely to develop bulimia than men (Source: Carlson, 2008)

In addition to the loss of the gag reflex, a protective mechanism in the throat and the loss of muscular control of the lower bowel from prolonged laxative use, the bulimics tend to erode the enamel from their teeth, scar their throats with continued vomiting and cause other physical damages as well including, irregular heartbeats and the possibility of stomach rupture. Bulimics may also develop anorexia nervosa if they are not treated promptly.

Addressing Nutritional Needs

The average teenage girl needs around 2200 calories per day with the average teenage boy needing slightly more than this. Before the teen starts obsessing about weight and body image, it is important to establish what their proper weight and calorie intake should be. The right amount of fats, proteins and carbohydrates should be included in this number and should be discussed with the teen so that they feel like they have control over their own health and nutrition. Help them learn how important each of the macronutrients are and how to make the best choices for each of them.


While teens (and adults) who are concerned about their weight might try to shun the word “fat” they need to understand that healthy fat sources are actually beneficial and should be included in the healthy diet, even for those who are trying to lose weight. Fats should make up 15-20% of the daily calories and should be of the healthy variety, including monounsaturated fats like olive oil. The teen should learn to steer clear of polyunsaturated and saturated fats as well as trans fats in their diet, especially if they are high risk for high cholesterol and heart disease.


Another of the words that the chronic dieter does not like, carbohydrates are necessary to the healthy diet because they are the source of energy that the body turns to first. It is a myth that all carbohydrates are created equally: simple carbs burn quickly and cause the body to go into sugar panic mode, storing away sugar in huge amounts and not burning any for fuel. Complex carbohydrates like those in whole grain breads and vegetables take longer for the body to break down and do not cause sugar surges at all. Food is broken down into glucose for energy and glycogen for storage and there is no flood of insulin to cause the extreme storage and weight gain.

The teen should learn about the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates as well as learning to use food’s glycemic index to make their choices of foods. Complex carbohydrates should make up 50-60% of the daily calories.


Some teens will start a diet and forget that they need a variety of foods to be healthy and strong. They may eat only one food item per day; they may stop eating at all. They should be taught that eating only one food, even a healthy one, leaves them lacking in the other nutrients that they need to be healthy.

Teens need to get between 20-35% of their daily calories from protein, preferably healthy, low fat sources. The teen can continue to explore vegetarianism while getting the right amount of healthy protein. For parents who are afraid that their teen is lacking, there are supplements that supply the right amount of protein and can still be perfectly cool and acceptable to the teen, even the picky ones.

Profect, from Protica is a protein supplement that supplies 25 grams of protein per 100 calorie serving (perfect as a between meal snack or with meals). It also supplies Vitamin C and the B complex vitamins and comes in fruity flavors that may appeal to the teen.

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