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Eating Disorders Rise for Kids and Teens During Pandemic

Ellen Singer, MD, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Portland, shares tips for parents whose kids may be struggling with anxiety and food issues.

Presented by Kaiser Permanente November 15, 2021

As the pandemic continues, pediatricians at Kaiser Permanente Northwest are concerned about an increase they’re seeing in eating disorders in kids and teens. Isolation, change in routine and heightened anxiety during COVID-19 can contribute to the formation of eating disorders or an increase in the severity of existing ones, such us anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

“We are seeing an uptick in disordered eating, including restrictive eating, binge eating and combinations of both,” said Ellen Singer, MD, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon. “We have probably had a 25% to 30% increase in referrals to our eating disorder program this year.”

A recent study of data pooled from 80 health care organizations and 22,152 pediatric patients shows that hospital admissions during the pandemic for patients ages 12 to 18 that included an eating disorder diagnosis increased by 25% overall compared with pre-pandemic trends. When looking at males versus females, females had a 30% increase in hospital admissions due to eating disorders, and doctors would like for parents to watch for warning signs now that kids are back in school.

Suffering From Anxiety and Depression

“Be aware that shopping for school clothes is a trigger,” said Dr. Singer. “We see a bump in eating disorder referrals in summer when school ends and parents notice weight loss, and in early fall when school starts.”

A majority of kids and teens with eating disorders also suffer from anxiety or depression.

“For young people, the transition to online learning, a lack of socialization, and uncertainty during the pandemic have exacerbated their anxieties. This can lead to a hyperfixation on appearance, weight, severe dieting, or overeating to manage stress and fear.”

But there are signs parents can watch for and things they can do to help, including consulting with their pediatrician and making healthy lifestyle changes at home. 

Signs your child might be struggling with an eating disorder:

  • Refusing to eat at the table with the family
  • Cooking or preparing food for others that they don’t eat
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Eating or exercising in their room
  • Sneaking food out of the kitchen (wrappers in their room)
  • Watching a lot of food shows on TV
  • Overusing social media

What parents can do to help:

  • Limit phone/W-Fi access at night, and no phone at meals.
  • Provide three meals and two or three snacks per day for kids.
  • Model healthy eating (meals/snacks, sitting when eating); don’t talk about dieting.
  • Call your pediatrician and schedule an appointment for your child if you’re concerned.