- Researchers say eating disorders among teens, especially young girls, have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- They say the stress of the pandemic combined with social media and being stuck at home are among the contributing factors.
- Experts advise parents to keep an eye on what their children are eating and prepare healthy meals.
Given the mental health issues that teenagers in the United States face even when the world is relatively calm, it should come as no surprise that the pandemic has caused an increase in stressors for this age group.
The latest evidence of this is a new study that shows there has been a 30 percent jump in eating disorder-related hospital admissions among females ages 12 to 18 during the pandemic.
Admissions for males didn’t increase.
This newly released data from Epic Health Research Network reports that eating disorder diagnoses increased by 25 percent overall for people ages 12 to 18 compared to predictions based on pre-pandemic trends.
The study commenced after experts such as Dr. Mark Norris, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Canada specializing in adolescent health and eating disorders, expressed concern about an apparent increase in the hospitalization of adolescents with eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. David Little, a family physician, and his team at Epic Health, which publishes observations by health experts about donated data that spans more than 100 million patients, decided to analyze hospital admission rates that included an eating disorder diagnosis.
The group then examined whether the increase in hospital admissions was partly due to an overall increase in new diagnoses of eating disorders.
Little and his colleagues said the findings are consistent with concerns expressed by Norris and other researchers and clinicians in multiple countries that the incidence of eating disorders, particularly in pediatric populations, might have spiked during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
“The pandemic has been so disruptive to everyone’s social interactions and to their own psychology,” Little told Healthline.
“Teens are coming to grips with their vulnerability as humans and they are seeing suffering all around them,” he added. “And there are, of course, the social aspects: no school, no in-person engagement with friends. That plays itself out in different ways.”
Little and his team also went back and looked at other Epic Health studies, including ones on anxiety, depression, and suicide.
“While we saw them rise, it was not as big a jump as we saw with this population, which has been more dramatic,” said Little.
“This is all about the self-image. I think the number one stressor is the social dynamic. I raised three boys and they were connected to their social structure. When you disconnect that, it is disruptive. And add the fact that kids are cooped up in [the] house with parents,” he added.
“There are several major factors, but this is a death by a thousand paper cuts scenario,” Little explained.
Social stressors during the pandemic are unlike anything anyone has experienced, added Little, who noted that weight gain, too, is a possible stressor.
“The availability of food plays a role,” he said. “In school, you get a lunch break, but you are not surrounded by food. At home, you have access to food all day and night, all the time, healthy or not.”
A mentor for parents
J.D. Ouellette’s youngest daughter grew up in a loving, secure environment. A good student and athlete, she showed no signs of an eating disorder until her senior year in high school.
A so-called “healthy eating makeover” was the catalyst for what eventually would become restrictive anorexia nervosa.
“She lost 25 percent of body weight in 3 months when she was 17,” Ouellette told Healthline. “But she fully recovered after treatment and is now living a full and happy life.”
Ouellette, who now works as a mentor for other parents of children who have an eating disorder, said she’s not surprised by the increase in this diagnosis during the pandemic.
“COVID plus lockdown created a perfect storm around anxiety, food scarcity messages, food access, and being home all the time, lack of structure, societal messaging on ‘Quarantine 15,’ more time to exercise, sometimes a family change or goal, depression leading to negative energy balance, and more,” she said.
The onset for people in this study may have been due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions or the fact that parents didn’t eat that many meals around their child to observe them, Ouellette said.
“With this pandemic, we have seen a spike in anxiety, and that can cascade into other things,” she said. “And it’s not helpful to have memes and messages all over the place saying ‘be careful and ‘be cautious’ and ‘watch how much you eat.’”
Ouellette said that it’s appropriate for parents to keep an eye on what their kids are eating and not eating.
“There is a balance between 1950s attitudes that ‘this is your dinner, eat it,’ and the pandemic style, which is ‘my kids will figure out what to eat, no pressure,’” she said.
“There should be a healthy space between these two. Parents need to be responsible and ensure that their kids are getting regular nutrition, that they are moving but not compulsive,” she added. “We need to have a more critical filter on what society thinks is healthy.”
Social media a concern
Little said parents should be more aware of the social media messages being conveyed to children and teens about body image and other topics.
And parents should stay active in their children's lives.
One CEO and mother of five girls, who asked that her name not be used, told Healthline that her daughters support each other when eating disorder behaviors emerge.
“Promoting healthy eating and inner confidence is very important and a constant battle against outside influences, with social media being the biggest culprit,” she told Healthline.
“It takes over our whole family from daily meals, eating out and family events,” she said.
The mother of five added that during the COVID-19 pandemic, every day is a struggle to get food that fits her daughters' diet plan and the amount of food that goes on their plates.
“Self-confidence is my biggest challenge – trying to get them to see the beauty of a morally decent person who cares about others and not just themselves, which I see more and more in the younger generation,” she said.
“We've been fortunate that none of my daughters have gotten to the point where they've needed to seek medical intervention or expert therapy,” she added. “My only hope is that with the love and support of family, they don't go too far in that direction and that they learn to be happy with who they are and make peace with their feelings.”
The Pandemic Is Not Over
While things have opened up a bit and some children are back in school, Little says the problem won't go away anytime soon.
“It will probably get a little better,” he said. “But until there's a full social structure back in place, and until we see each other routinely and the masks are gone and we really get back to established routines, it's not going to get back to normal.”