According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. For about half of those individuals, depression is a simultaneous issue.
Many people blame television, pop culture, and social media for the onset of eating disorders. Indeed, the media bears its fair share of the responsibility (check out a NYT summary of this famous research study done on Fijian adolescent girls), however, the cycle in which many adolescents find themselves caught actually has much more to do with painful emotions than media pressure.
The cycle tends to go like this: You feel uneasy (i.e. anxious, sad, bored, resentful, etc.). You desire to cover over those feelings, so you use food as the drug of choice (either abstaining or consuming) to cover those feelings. After temporary relief, you feel guilt, shame, self-hate, or hopelessness, which renews a sense of self-hatred that then emotionally predisposes you to repeat the behavior. Food is not just food, but a tool to get the release you’re seeking (Jantz & McMurray, 2002). The longer the behavior goes on, the more it is reinforced by both the body and the brain. Many adolescents lack the emotional vocabulary and other resources to cope with unpleasant emotions, leaving them with few alternatives but to continue the cycle.
The good news about eating disorders is that decreasing those unpleasant feelings and helping an individual find a sense of security and calm can take away the urgent need to cover unpleasant feelings. This very action interrupts the cycle and allows space for the development of healthy coping behaviors to help with those unpleasant emotions that all of us experience. This process takes time, especially when considering how long it took these patterns to develop and take root, but it is possible.
If you know someone struggling with an eating disorder, contacting a therapist is a wise first step. The text mentioned above (Hope, Help, and Healing for Eating Disorders by Gregory Jantz and Ann McMurray) is also a helpful resource.