Anxiety And Your Teen’s Eating Habits

The connections between food and teen anxiety.

Over the past couple of years, a perfect storm of stressful events (including the COVID-19 pandemic) has triggered or worsened mood disorders in a reported 46 percent of teens.

One common mood disorder, anxiety, can directly affect both what teens eat and how much they eat, which in turn can have negative health consequences.
The more you understand the relationship between anxiety issues and your teen’s eating habits, the more quickly you can recognize the signs of anxiety in your own teen and take steps to help that teen live a happier, healthier life. Take a look at some important connections between food and teen anxiety.

Teen Anxiety and Appetite Changes

Anxiety can trigger appetite changes, although the nature of these changes can vary according to the type and degree of anxiety.

People who suffer from chronic anxiety, for instance, may lose their appetite due to the fight or flight effects of stress hormones on the body and brain. Diarrhea or nausea from anxiety can also discourage eating.
Teens who experience bouts of short-term anxiety (as opposed to constant anxiety) often react by overeating instead of losing all interest in food. As the anxiety worsens or turns chronic, they may then flip-flop from overeating to a compulsion to avoid food altogether, a problem known as anorexia.

Teen Anxiety and Anorexia Nervosa

Even anxious teens who still experience hunger may intentionally steer clear of food due to a particular type of anorexia known as anorexia nervosa.

In this condition, image-conscious teens (and adults) perceive themselves as overweight regardless of their actual physical state, compelling them to deprive themselves of food.
Anorexia nervosa typically makes its first appearance during the teenage years. Teenage girls in Western cultures may prove especially vulnerable to anorexia nervosa, with up to four percent of them struggling with the condition as adult women. This disorder requires prompt treatment to prevent serious health complications.

Teen Anxiety and Bulimia Nervosa

Anxiety issues that develop in childhood can also lead to another type of eating disorder called bulimia nervosa. A teen suffering from bulimia nervosa may go on colossal food binges and then intentionally throw up to prevent digestion.

Like anorexia nervosa, body image problems and fear of obesity can fuel this behavior.

Since the body can’t make use of vomited food, bulimic teens run the same risks of malnutrition as anorexic teens. Untreated bulimia can also produce other complications such as tooth decay, throat tissue swelling, kidney damage, dehydration, chemical imbalances, gum disease, kidney problems, constipation, and heart trouble.

Teen Anxiety and Dietary Choices

A teen suffering from anxiety may gravitate toward certain comfort foods as a kind of self-medication or means of distraction.

Unfortunately, many of these comfort foods place an unhealthy emphasis on sugars, starches, fats, and other substances that offer little real nutritional value and only reinforce the urge to self-medicate with them.
While you can’t necessarily control everything your teen chooses to eat, you can serve foods that help reduce anxiety instead of reinforcing the urge to feast on unhealthy menu items. Examples include asparagus, avocado, blueberries, turkey, almonds, yogurt, kale, and salmon.
You don’t have to force a whole new diet on a teen struggling with anxiety. Instead, find ways to swap out certain unhealthy items with healthier substitutes. For instance, blueberries can lend sweetness to breakfast cereal as a substitute for sugar, Roast turkey offers mood-leveling tryptophan without the fats added by frying.

The compassionate experts at Anxiety Institute know how to help teens struggling with eating disorders and other problems related to emotional health challenges.

Contact us today to request an initial consultation.

About the Author

Headshot: Daniel Villiers, Ph.D.
Dr. Dan brings over ten years of experience working with children, adolescents, young adults and families in a range of clinical and educational settings.
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