Pandemic fuelling rise in eating disorders among young people, B.C. expert says

A growing fourth wave of COVID-19 cases and uncertainties around the new school year could make kids and teens more susceptible to eating disorders, according to one expert.

Registered clinical counsellor Joanna Zelichowska, the manager of Jessie's Legacy, an eating disorder prevention program in North Vancouver, said when the world seems chaotic and uncertain, people can focus on their eating habits and exercise in order to regain a sense of control.

“All the conditions of the pandemic in terms of isolation, uncertainty and increased anxiety are all things that can make people more susceptible to feeling like they need to gain control in their lives,” Zelichowska told CTV Morning Live on Tuesday.

“We’ve seen an increase in folks who already had a susceptibility to eating disorders – and for some folks, this is happening for the first time.”

Warning signs include a focus on eating or movement that is having a negative impact on a young person's life, according to the counsellor. That could mean spending time feeling preoccupied by food choices, or "perhaps not wanting to eat food other people prepared because you're not sure of the nutrient value or the caloric value," Zelichowska said.

An increased amount of screen time and social media during the pandemic has not helped, she added.

“We’re not having that real world comparison of seeing people in everyday life, in their normal messiness. We only see what we call the highlight reel – the really perfected photos – and naturally we’re comparing ourselves against that.”

Zelichowska suggests curating one's social media experience. She said looking at beautifully staged photos of celebrities, models and fitness influencers can make people feel poorly about themselves. Instead, she recommended looking at things that are related to one's hobbies and interests to get a more diverse picture.

And she said parents can help their kids by talking to them in a curious, open and non-judgemental way.

“I always encourage families to zoom out a little bit, not just totally zero in on the food,” said Zelichowska. “Start a conversation with teens about what’s going on in their lives, their stressors and that way you create a place of safety for your kids to share.”

Jessie’s Legacy has developedscre ening tests on its website to help people tell if their focus on food or body image is becoming unhealthy.