Pandemic-imposed lack of routines, social isolation and fear have our teens using eating to cope, and it has experts worried.
“We’ve seen significantly more teenagers (15 to 19 year-olds) reaching out than we usually do on our helpline, potentially speaking to the unique ways they’ve been impacted by the pandemic,” said Ary Maharaj, the outreach and education coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre.
Some of the top concerns of teens include the disruption of normal social supports, uncertainty around school and being unable to find respite at home, he says.
While various factors influence the development of an eating disorder — including biology, personality traits, mental health struggles and social influence — trauma and low-self esteem can also play a role. Plus, the anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the current global crisis may be challenging for some youth, especially given concerns around food security and fear around illness.
Eating disorders and COVID-19
“While there’s still a need for causal research to link eating disorders and COVID-19, some researchers have published [a report] on how people might be at greater risk for experiencing eating disorder symptoms,” says Maharaj. “In particular, the absence of clear routines — whether it be in the classroom or work day — and the blending of home and work can increase risk of eating disorder behaviours by removing structures that were supporting eating plans and mealtimes.”
That report, written in the European Eating Disorders Review, also says the COVID-19 pandemic may put additional psychological stress on people with eating disorders due to confinement and the distress caused by uncertainty.
“Concerns about health and fitness during confinement might serve as a precipitating factor for the development of an [eating disorder] in vulnerable individuals,” researchers wrote, pointing to additional risk factors such as time spent on social media and the “toxic influence of the objectification of the thin ideal.”
“When we only see the very polished version of what someone might look like, or only certain types of bodies going ‘viral,’ it can lead to supplemental pressure and a greater attention to dieting and weight loss,” he says.
Social media and body image
The link between social media and body image and eating disorders in children and teens is not new. A recent U.S. study found that daily and frequent use of social media is linked to a greater risk of young adults developing eating and body image concerns, while in the U.K., celebrity-promoted diets and social media is blamed for the recent uptick in child anorexia.
The absence of clear routines — whether it be in the classroom or work day — and the blending of home and work can increase risk of eating disorder behaviours
“Youth have also been inundated with harmful eating and appearance-related messaging on social media,” he added, pointing to the concerns around gaining the “quarantine 15″ — the extra pounds people have gained while in isolation.
Celebrity weight loss
Popular singer Adele got a ton of praise after losing 40 pounds by following the Sirtfood diet, which consists of eating foods rich in sirtuin — a gene that may be able to help with weight — like apples, blueberries, and extra virgin olive oil. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Teddi Mellencamp has made headlines with her 500 to 1000 calorie a day diet and exercise program “ALL IN with Teddi.” She is currently facing allegations that her expensive program is a restrictive diet that promotes dangerous eating habits and disordered behaviour. And actor Rebel Wilson recently declared 2020 “the year of health,” aiming for a year-end goal weight of 165 pounds following the Mayr Method which incorporates attention to diet with lifestyle changes.
Youth have also been inundated with harmful eating and appearance-related messaging on social media
Add this extra focus on weight to the endless memes about quarantine weight, and the closure of many gyms and fitness activities, and it’s hard to brush off increasing body and image concerns.
It’s what makes the work of the NEDIC, and others like it, so important. If anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, get in touch with the National Eating Disorder Information Centre toll-free at 1-866-NEDIC-20 or 416-340-4156 in Toronto. Online chat is also available at nedic.ca.
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