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Adolescent Nutrition and Eating Disorders

Chapter 1  Eating Disorders During Adolescence

Chapter 2  Anorexia Nervosa In Adolescence

Chapter 3 Onset of Anorexia Nervosa during Adolescence

Chapter 4  Initial Stage of Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescence

Chapter 5  Crisis Stage Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescence

Chapter 6  Long-Term Recovery Stage Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescence

Chapter 7 Bulimia Nervosa in Adolescence

Nutritional Care Summarized - Table

Selected References & External Links

List of Reviewers

N.W. Regional Web Symposium
MPH Student Research 
Biographical Information

Eating Disorders during Adolescence:  Nutritional Problems and Interventions

Jane Mitchell Rees, PhD, RD, CD
Departments of Health Services and Pediatrics 
Maternal Child Health and Adolescent Medicine 
University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195

Eating Disorders
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Useful Links



Risky Eating Behaviors

Weight Management

Chapter 5  Crisis Stage Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescence

 [Table of Contents]

Crisis Stage: Psychological effects of starvation 

A crisis associated with anorexia nervosa can cause great distress among family, friends, and professionals.  The family may believe the adolescentís abnormal eating behaviors are the sole problem, failing to understand the underlying multifaceted disturbance.  They may seek treatment that does not require them to be involved in psycho-therapy.  As she becomes truly cachectic, specific characteristics of starvation are superimposed on the already disturbed psychological state of an adolescent with anorexia nervosa.  Unhealthful behaviors, distorted perceptions, and weight phobia become more pronounced. The symptoms below, termed starvation neurosis, and documented in a classic study by Ancel Keys et al (in The Biology of Human Starvation, U of Minn. Press, 1950, vol. II)  of volunteers who underwent starvation designed to mimic conditions in Europe during World War II, are clearly seen in the syndrome of anorexia nervosa.
  • Cognitive processes center on food. Thoughts of food intrude constantly; the major part of the waking hours are spent in contemplating it.
  • Behavior includes toying with food and hoarding it, especially during re-nourishment.
  • Coherent, creative thinking is impaired.
  • Mental function is characterized by apathy, dullness, exhaustion, and depression.
  • Interest in sex wanes.
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Crisis Stage: Behavior pattern

Most adolescents with anorexia nervosa resist what they see as intrusions by professionals or others seeking to intervene.  They are secretive and hide their rituals.  They may appear apathetic but have sudden flashes of bad temper, as starving people of all ages usually do.  Adolescents with anorexia nervosa may obsessively plan menus, read recipes, cook and serve food to others, manipulate food before eating it, and record all that they eat.  They frequently recite "calorie" and fat content of food, but have distorted views and knowledge of nutrition.  Pretending to eat, they may hide and dispose of food.  These behaviors are driven by the disturbed adolescentís fear of gaining weight which intensifies in a crisis.

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Crisis Stage: Overall physical state 

In the crisis stage of anorexia nervosa, the adolescentís physical state deteriorates. Electrolyte and cardiac abnormalities are among the signs that starvation is approaching a life threatening stage. 

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Crisis Stage: Physical signs of starvation

As the crisis stage develops, the individual is unable to take care of herself.  The physical symptoms of human starvation are now superimposed on the other problems inherent in the disorder.  Physical signs of starvation commonly seen in adolescents with severe anorexia nervosa include:
  • Fat store depletion
  • Muscle wasting
  • Skeletal appearance (cachexia)
  • Amenorrhea/delayed menarche 
  • Fainting (postural hypotension)
  • Irregular pulse/heart beat (cardiac arrhythmia)
  • Fissures at corners of mouth (cheilosis)
  • Yellowed skin (carotonemia)
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Fine downy hair (lanugo) growing over body (hirsutism)
  • Thin, dry, brittle hair
  • Loss of hair from head (alopecia)
  • Degradation of fingernails
  • Bluish tips of fingers and ear lobes (acrocyanosis)
  • Feeling extremely cold or hot (inability to regulate body temperature)
  • Frequent night urination (inability to concentrate urine)
  • Constipation
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Crisis Stage: Currently studied nutritional problems

In acute and severe human malnutrition, all body tissues are affected.  Recent research has focused on bone demineralization, growth failure, and structural changes in the brain of severely malnourished adolescents.  Intra-cranial cerebrospinal fluid spaces enlarge in adolescents with anorexia nervosa, meanwhile brain tissues change.  Adolescents with anorexia also suffer reduced bone mass, delayed pubertal development and fail to reach their potential height.  Studies relate these detrimental symptoms specifically to lower than normal body weight-for-height and document improvement with re-nourishment.  The possibility that certain of the brain, bone and growth abnormalities are, however, irreversible is of special concern and dictates ongoing monitoring and aggressive early treatment.  The seriousness of damage to the brain and bone documented to the present indicates that the effects of semi-starvation during adolescence on all body tissues should be studied.

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Crisis Stage: Endocrine abnormalities

Adaptations to starvation by the hypothalamus result in extensive alterations in the body functions it controls in, a pre-pubertal state in adolescents with anorexia nervosa. The adolescent with anorexia is amenorrheic, is unable to adapt to heat and cold, suffers sleep disturbances, and is unable to conserve body water.  The inability to maintain adult levels of sexual hormones could account for the lack of interest in sex described in anorexia nervosa since the earliest recorded cases.

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Crisis Stage: Terminal starvation signs

During a crisis when basic life is threatened, professionals monitor the adolescent's vital signs and take remedial action .  The most outstanding signs that starvation has reached a life threatening stage depend upon the specific type of starvation include now identified:
  • Fluid and electrolyte imbalance, with dehydration and edema, indicating the body cannot maintain homeostasis
  • Severe cardiac arythmias in the absence of electrolyte imbalances, indicating a wasted myocardium
  • Absence of ketone bodies in the urine, indicating a lack of fat used for metabolic fuel, when normal sources are restricted and therefore absence of fuel
  • Bloody diarrhea, indicating intestinal tissue damage
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Crisis Stage: Intervention strategies

When the adolescent's condition reaches the crisis stage, health care team must intervene.  Hospitalization provides the protection and comprehensive care needed.  Intensive interventions are necessary when outpatient treatment has failed or when there is evidence of medical or psychiatric deterioration.  The goal will be to treat life threatening symptoms, and nutritionally rehabilitate the adolescent. Psychotherapy supports nutritional and medical stabilization during hospitalization.  Following rehabilitation adolescents make even greater psychological gains without the effects of semi-starvation neurosis.

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Crisis Stage: Hospitalization

Young people require hospitalization to obtain intensive monitoring and care in order to avoid suffering long-term damage caused when semi-starvation is severe and prolonged.  The health care team specializing in treating adolescents with eating disorders will need to work with a trained inpatient staff to achieve the best results from inpatient treatment.  The augmented team, experienced in dealing with adolescents, will understand the developmental issues as well as the physiological needs of adolescents.  Goals of hospitalization will be to: 
  • medically and nutritionally stabilize adolescents
  • eleminate starvation neurosis so adolescents can progress in outpatient psychotherapy and other treatment following discharge
  • help adolescents internaliz the need to regain health by eating sufficient food to meet body needs

An intensive program will guide the adolescent initially, providing incentives within a safe environment for her to assume as much responsibility as she is able.  The clear documentation of altered brain and bone stucture, as well as potential retardation of overall growth and develoment constitute an imparative for early specialized intervention.

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Crisis Stage: Specialized Day-Treatment facilities

In some situations health care providers may decide a day-treatment intervention is appropriate for an adolescent who can be medically and nutritionally stabilized in a slightly less intensive therapeutic setting.  These programs incorporate treatment methods developed in hospital settings and allow adolescents to experience moderating their behaviors in a real world setting.  At reduced cost, these programs monitor and guide adolescents while they participate in psychotherapeutic and educational groups as well as attending school.  Adolescents are thus supervised during nutritional rehabilitation, yet able to live at home with their families. 

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Crisis Stage: In-Home Care

Health care providers may determine outpatient care programs are appropriate for affected adolescents and their families in some situations.  The treatment team is multidisciplinary as in other settings.  Monitoring and treatment sessions at clinics will be frequent.  Parents have a major responsibility for carrying out the program at home with the guidance of professionals.  The treatment team will support the family in offering food, maintaining prescribed energy expenditure limits, and developing appropriate inter-personal interactions.  Parents must also be taught to recognize sudden downturns in the adolescent's physical status and how to access emergency care.  Weight restoration will be prolonged in these circumstances, as the family learns what is necessary to promote recovery.

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Crisis Stage: Comprehensive treatment

In a crisis it is essential that care be comprehensive and provided by an experienced multidisciplinary team.  All professionals and family who have contact with the adolescent will need to understand and support the treatment plan.  Physicians will manage overall care, monitoring symptoms and progress.  Nutritional components of therapeutic regimens for anorexia nervosa adolescents in the crisis stage are intertwined with the psychological aspects of the treatment.  Nutritional rehabilitation principles apply regardless of the treatment setting.  Treatment teams often use a behavioral contract to establish the core relationship between state of wellness and allowable adolescent activities.  Professionals, parents and the adolescent will sign the contract, confirming the weight gain required to justify energy expenditure in unnecessary activities.  At this stage, speaking with family and friends, using the telephone, and getting out of bed for the bathroom are included as part of the controlled energy expenditure.  Even these basic activities may have to be limited to building up the body energy supply.  Therefore, adolescents who do not eat will be kept at bed rest at this stage, and monitored, whether in a hospital or other setting. 
[Nutrition Care Summarized - Table.]

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Crisis Stage: Medical nutritional therapy

Nutritional therapy is based on classic principles of nutritional rehabilitation for starving humans.  Re-nourishment obviously will begin with a gradual increase in energy intake.  In some programs the adolescent will be allowed to choose anything available to other adolescents (or family at home).  Other programs impose rules, make additions to what is ordered, or serve a set menu.  If a diet is prescribed, following established dietary principles, it should have adequate protein to meet basic needs.  Additional energy will be made up of complex carbohydrates and a small amount of fat.  Sodium and sugars should be moderated as they may enhance fluid retention.  Fibrous foods should be included to achieve bowel regularity, with the added caution that adolescents may experiment in using excessive amounts of fibrous foods as laxatives.  The overall diet should be rich in micro-nutrients, especially calcium and iron.  Supplemental vitamins and minerals can be given in amounts recommended for daily intake, though these are not routinely prescribed.  It should be clear that taking vitamin supplements does not substitute for eating regular food.

[Nutritional Care Summarized - Table]

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Crisis Stage: Nutritionally complete liquid formula

If an adolescent refuses to eat normal food, a nutritionally-complete-liquid formulated for adults, prescribed and dispensed as a medicine, may be used.  If the adolescent refuses all oral feedings it may be necessary to use nasogastric or parenteral methods.  Invasive methods will be presented as lifesaving procedures, not as punishment for refusing to eat.  Nourishment by mouth is the preferred route and is possible in most cases.

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Crisis Stage: Body responses to re-nourishment

People being rehabilitated after starvation, as well as those reaching a starving state, generally develop edema. Because anorexia nervosa adolescents fear gaining weight, swelling with fluid increases their anxiety.  The edema seems to an adolescent to be proof that she will "expand" as she feared.  Anticipatory guidance can help her accept edema and other temporary body changes during refeeding. Assurance that professionals will guide her in gaining strength without adding excess fat can desensitize her to an increase in body size.  The intervention team will reinterpret nutrition misconceptions that have supported a adolescent's life threatening behaviors.  Thus, adolescents can be reminded that: 
  • Storing calcium in bones and replenishing nutrients in the brain will increase weight but not body size. 
  • Nutrients filling up shrunken cells maintain normal life, they are not ďfatĒ. 
  • A person must have stored energy to keep him/herself strong enough to live.
[ Nutritional Care Summarized - Table ]

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This Web Site is a reference for health care professionals, students and educators; it is not intended to provide advice or treatment to people with eating disorders.  If you have an eating disorder or disturbed eating patterns, consult a qualified physician who specializes in eating disorders.

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