Acid Reflux vs. Eating Disorders in Teens

by Jennifer Mitchell Wilson B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

Being a teenager with acid reflux disease can be brutal. Acid reflux can cause classic heartburn pain, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and other unpleasant symptoms. Additionally, people with acid reflux often have to make alterations to the foods that they can eat, chew more thoroughly, and avoid some foods altogether.

Unfortunately, these acid reflux-associated food behaviors can unintentionally lead people to misdiagnose a teen with an eating disorder. During my time working with teens with acid reflux disease, I have seen this mistake happen more often than you would think. It can be quite frustrating for the teens, parents, and health care providers.

Symptoms of eating disorders

Eating disorders are nothing to take lightly. The most commonly known eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, but there are several other categories as well. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), it is estimated that half a million teenagers struggle with an eating disorder.

According to NEDA, some of the symptoms of an eating disorder are:

  • Inadequate food intake

  • Fear of gaining weight or obsession with losing weight

  • Self-esteem overly associated with body image

  • Overeating followed by self-induced vomiting

  • Overuse of laxatives or other methods to prevent weight gain

  • Feeling out of control of food intake

  • Shame or hiding food behaviors

While this list is not exhaustive, it gives you some idea of how a teen with acid reflux could be mistakenly thought to have an eating disorder, especially if they aren’t getting adequate nutrition due to avoiding certain foods that cause acid reflux symptoms.

What to do if your teen’s doctor suspects an eating disorder

If you or your child are dealing with acid reflux disease and your health care provider insists they have an eating disorder, it can be hard not to get defensive. The best way to deal with the situation is to get a second opinion, and, if warranted, allow an evaluation to be done. If the health care professional determines that an eating disorder is not playing a role in your teenager’s medical issues, they can move on to address the acid reflux more aggressively.

On the other hand, should an eating disorder specialist diagnose your teen with an eating disorder, it’s important to take that diagnosis seriously. Eating disorders can be deadly mental illnesses, and they require treatment. Diagnosis is just the first step — months or sometimes years of treatment are needed to properly deal with an eating disorder. Treatment options will be tailored to what works best for your teen and may include psychological and nutritional counseling, according to NEDA.

If you believe that you or someone you love might have an eating disorder, you can contact NEDA's helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for immediate assistance. They also offer a useful online screening tool.

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Mitchell Wilson

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson is a dietitian and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.