Eating disorders spiking among teens during the COVID-19 pandemic

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It appears the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in the number of children and teenagers being hospitalized with eating disorders.

Dr. Holly Agostino, an adolescent medicine specialist who runs the eating disorder program at the Montreal Children's Hospital, says in just the past couple of weeks, at least 10 teens and pre-teens have been taken to the hospital for an assessment at because of some kind of eating disorder. In normal times, that number would be somewhere closer to zero or one.

"We are seeing patients who have come in with extreme levels of weight loss," she says. "We're seeing higher numbers now, but we're also seeing patients come in more sick."

She points out that people who lose weight quickly also tend to shed muscle mass. Since the heart is also a muscle, that can also mean abnormally low heart rates, and other heart issues.

The problem isn't limited to the Children's — pediatricians at Ste. Justine Hospital say the number of patients they've seen with nutritional issues has roughly doubled over the summer months.

Dr. Agostino says changes in children's routines brought on by the pandemic likely played a role in this current spike.

"The stories are very similar from one patient to another," she says. "When they were at home, either because their school stopped or their sports stopped, they wanted to keep [up] some activity, so they started going online, finding workouts online, trying to eat healthy at home. And some of them lost control, and this just went to an excessive point where over the next few months, they lost a ton of weight, and are coming in in the state that we're seeing them now."

Making matters worse, the change in routine may have exacerbated other common problems, such as anxiety or depression.

"Someone who might already have an anxious predisposition with the anxiety of the pandemic in general might have turned to controlling eating and controlling exercise as a means of coping with what was going on," she said.

Dr. Agostino says parents should pay attention to changes in their kids' eating habits — particularly if they cut back on certain foods, cut their portion sizes, or if they become suddenly and overly obsessed with their food choices or their exercise routines.

"The earlier that you identify that something is starting, and put some intervention into place, the better the outcome," she says.
 

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