Pandemic fuelling rise in eating disorders- Here are a few tips on what to look out for


Life as we’ve known it has not been the same for almost a year. The pandemic has disrupted school, work -basically all of our routines while, at the same time, we’re socially isolated. As a result, many of our kids are in trouble: mental health issues among this age group are soaring.

According to experts, this pandemic stress is creating a spike in eating disorders among adolescents and teens. News reports state that there is a significant jump in some hospital admissions and increased demand for outpatient treatment with the illness having the highest prevalence around ages 15 to 19.

At Toronto’s SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health, hospital admissions are expected to jump as much as 30% while the number of referred outpatients is heading towards a 50 to 60% increase.

Not just anorexia

While when it comes to eating disorders, many of us think of anorexia and its related extreme thinness but there are other concerning disorders to be aware of. And these patterns can start very, very slowly which can make them hard to detect until they’re firmly entrenched.

Once established, breaking free from eating disorders and their routines can sometimes be a lifelong struggle.

While weight and body image issues can be very common, another lesser known one is that of the satisfaction attained from controlling something- just anything.

When life seems to be chaotic, something as simple as eating the same food and same amount of that food at lunch each and every single day can bring a little bit of a sense of control  or stability to a person. The next step might be deciding to see if one particular food can be cut out and then actually doing it adds to that sense of control.

Then banning another food and then more restrictions can actually bring pleasure as the sense of control increases. It can start very slowly but then suddenly get out of hand quickly.

Add in the influences of peers and social media along with societal expectations of body image and thinness, controlling food and exercise can seem like attainable goals in the midst of all the chaos.

If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder but want to know more, check out the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) where you can get information, resources, referrals and support for Canadians affected by eating disorders. Keep in mind that getting a diagnosis is key as the longer someone suffers from these, the longer it takes for treatment to be successful.

You can also play a role in preventing the development or halting an eating disorder in its early stages.

Here are a few tips and behaviours to look out for.

• Lose the trash talk about weight- either about yourself or others. In fact, don’t talk about weight at all. Disparaging yourself or others about their weight does not go unnoticed by youngsters- even if they’re not included in the conversation. Kids hear everything including all the chatter about “quarantine 19” or whatever the weight gain many have experienced is being called since the start of Covid-19. The potential harm, for instance, when a mother refuses to wear a bathing suit because of her weight can make quite an impression on kids. Or when parents talk about each other or friends and their weight gain in front of youngsters can have a major impact.

• Forget the gentle reminders in the hope of helping them watch their weight. Suggesting they forego second servings at dinner or avoid certain foods because they’re fattening sends the wrong message. If they’re having trouble sleeping or experiencing stomach discomfort, you can suggest they wait a few minutes before seeing if they want a second helping.

• Especially as we’re spending so much time at home, avoid the “See Food” diet: Keep the junk food out of sight and in harder to reach places. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. But on the other hand, don’t make them forbidden treats, making them even more desirable. Balance is key.

• If your child seems to be eating better, don’t make a big deal about it. And especially be sure NOT to offer compliments if they have slimmed down at all.

• If you notice behaviours, such as measuring food, start a dialogue and find out what’s going on. If they’re trying to eat better, encourage them to eyeball their food and let their stomachs and appetite guide them. Measuring food may have nothing to do with they’re actual eating but instead signify a need for controlling their environment.

• Suddenly cutting out foods, especially those your child always seemed to like is a red flag. “I don’t eat pasta anymore” if it’s always been a favourite can really mean “I don’t want to eat it as I always eat too much”. Banishing it can a way to seek more control. Suddenly becoming a vegetarian could be the same or it could be about animal welfare. But whatever these changes are, they do signal the need for discussion. Helping them see how various foods can fit can be helpful. Avoiding them yourself definitely won’t be.

If you need guidance, don’t wait. Reach out and connect with NEDIC, a dietitian or your child’s physician.


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Categories: Children's Health, Eating disorders, Nutrition News

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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