An Obese Person Can Be Pushed into an Eating Disorder

Two Children in an exam room playing doctor

Breaking the stereotypes that often surround eating disorders is an important part of raising awareness about these deadly diseases.  The truth of the matter is eating disorders can plague people of any type of background, gender, age or race.  Stereotypes about eating disorders are dangerous because they may overlook or exclude individuals who are suffering and sincerely need help.

A case report recently published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized that adolescent patients with obesity are at significant risk of developing an eating disorder, yet due to their higher weight status, their symptoms typically go undetected and untreated [1].  Contrarily to what is stereotypically believed about eating disorders, adolescent patients with obesity are at significant risk for developing an eating disorder.  In fact, individuals with an overweight or obese weight history signify a considerable portion of adolescents presenting for eating disorder treatment [1].

Perhaps the hyper focus on our culture’s “childhood obesity epidemic” has skewed our perception of weight loss in children, adolescents, and young adults.  With public health attention fixated on obesity in our nation’s children, the danger and risk of pediatric eating disorders has been largely overshadowed.  Eating disorders among youth should not be easily dismissed however, with more than 55% of high school girls and 30% of boys reporting disordered eating symptoms and at least 6% of youth suffering from eating disorders [1].

Adolescents who are obese or overweight can easily develop an eating disorder as they are pushed towards weight loss and are often rewarded for such regardless of the method used.  In addition, health professionals may overlook eating disorder behaviors or patterns in an overweight or obese patient while focusing on or pushing for weight loss.  Adolescents and young adults with obesity likely begin weight loss attempts by healthier means, but over time, this focus can develop into obsessive and dangerous habits.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that eating disorder concerns should be based on deviations from a child’s pattern of growth and not just on their weight or the percentile at which they may present for treatment [1].  Inevitably, eating disorders can strike at any weight, and simply because someone may be overweight or obese does not exclude them from the vulnerabilities of developing an eating disorder.

Eating disorder prevention begins with awareness, and by understanding that eating disorders and obesity can be intersecting (and not separate) health issues, perhaps more suffering individuals may be able to voice their struggles and receive the appropriate help and care they need.


[1]:  Leslie A. Sim, Jocelyn Lebow and Marcie Billings.  Eating Disorders in Adolescents with a History of Obesity.  Pediatrics 2013.  DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-3940

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website.