Eating disorders among teens have more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic – here's what to watch for
Published in Health & Fitness
The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with worsening mental health among teens, including increasing numbers of patients with eating disorders. In fact, research indicates that the number of teens with eating disorders at least doubled during the pandemic.
This is particularly concerning given that eating disorders are among the most deadly of all mental health diagnoses, and teens with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide than the general population.
While experts don’t know exactly why eating disorders develop, studies show that body dissatisfaction and desire for weight loss are key contributors. This can make conversations around weight and healthy behaviors particularly tricky with teens and young adults.
As an adolescent medicine doctor specializing in eating disorders, I have seen firsthand the increases in patients with eating disorders as well as the detrimental effects of eating disorder stereotypes. I regularly work with families to help teens develop positive relationships with body image, eating and exercise.
Understanding the signs of a possible eating disorder is important, as studies suggest that timely diagnosis and treatment leads to better long-term outcomes and to better chances of full recovery.
Eating disorders, which often start in adolescence, include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorders and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Each eating disorder has specific criteria that must be met in order to receive a diagnosis, which is made by a professional with eating disorder expertise.
Research suggests that up to 10% of people will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime. Medical complications from eating disorders, such as low heart rate and electrolyte abnormalities, can be dangerous and result in hospitalization, and malnutrition can affect growth and development. Many of the patients I see in clinic show signs of paused puberty and stalled growth, which can influence bone health, adult height and other aspects of health if not addressed quickly.
Teens are also at risk for disordered eating behaviors such as intentional vomiting, caloric restriction, binge eating, overexercise, the use of weight loss supplements and misuse of laxatives.
A recent study estimated that 1 in 5 teens may struggle with disordered eating behaviors. While these behaviors alone may not qualify as an eating disorder, they may predict the development of eating disorders later on.
Treatment methods for eating disorders are varied and depend on multiple factors, including a patient’s medical stability, family preference and needs, local resources and insurance coverage.