A study of six hospitals across Canada revealed new diagnoses anorexia almost doubled during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the hospitalization rate among those patients was almost three times higher than in the years before the pandemic.
The findings add to three smaller studies from the United States and Australia – all of which found an increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders during the pandemic.
However, the current study focuses only on children with a new diagnosis of anorexia, said lead researcher Dr. Holly Agostino, who runs an eating disorder program at a children’s hospital in Montreal.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we took away the children’s daily routine,” Agostino said.
With everything disturbed – including meals, training, sleep patterns and relationships with friends – vulnerable children and teenagers may have turned to food restrictions. And from depression and anxiety often “overlaps” with Eating Disorders, said Agostino, any worsening of these mental states could have contributed to anorexia in some children.
At any given time, about 0.4% of young women and 0.1% of young men suffer from anorexia, according to the National Association for Eating Disorders based in New York. Eating disorders are characterized by severe calorie and food restriction – as well as intense fear of weight gain.
New discoveries, posted online Dec. 7 JAMA network open, are based on data from six children ‘s hospitals in five Canadian provinces.
Agostino’s team looked at new diagnoses of anorexia among 9- to 18-year-olds between March 2020 (when pandemic restrictions took effect) and November 2020. They compared those numbers to years before the pandemic, which dates back to 2015.
During the pandemic, hospitals recorded an average of about 41 new cases of anorexia per month, an increase of about 25 in the time before the pandemic, the study found. And more and more newly discovered children ended up in the hospital: in 2020, there were 20 hospitalizations per month, compared to about eight previous years.
Dr. Natalie Prohaska is working on the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program at the University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital, Ann Arbor.
IN study earlier this year, she and her colleagues reported an increase in hospitalizations due to eating disorders during the first 12 months of the pandemic. The number of admissions due to eating disorders has more than doubled compared to 2017 to 2019.
Prohaska said the new findings underscore the fact that “adolescents” are struggling with mental health problems across countries.
She agreed that major disturbances in a child’s usual routine were likely to have contributed to an increase in eating disorders.
Those who were already dealing with body image problems were suddenly “caught in a vacuum,” Prohaska said, and that may have made the situation worse.
In addition, she noted, both children and adults are hearing horrific messages about pandemic weight gain.
There was even a mention of ‘COVID 15’, Prohaska said. – The children didn’t need it, after all.
Studies to date have examined trends in eating disorders in 2020. It is not clear how things stand now, with children returning to school.
But both Agostino and Prohaska said their eating disorder programs were still busier than before the pandemic.
“The waiting time has been exceeded,” Agostino said.
The programs receive children diagnosed earlier during the pandemic, as well as a continuous series of new cases.
“Eating disorders take time to cook,” Prohaska noted. So there are children who are just coming for treatment and say the pandemic was the “trigger” for them, she said.
Agostino said the same, saying that eating disorders “do not go from 0 to 100”.
This, she said, also means parents have time to notice early warning signs, such as the child becoming “rigid” about food choices or exercise or preoccupied with weight.
Parents can talk to their children about these problems – convincing them that, for example, it is okay to skip the exercise routine – and express any concerns to their pediatrician, says Agostino.
She said pediatricians should also have eating disorders on their radar and check to see if a child or teen has lost weight fast.
The National Association for Eating Disorders has more on eating disorders warning signs.
SOURCES: Holly Agostino, MD, Program Director, Eating Disorders Program, Children’s Hospital of Montreal, McGill University Health Center, Montreal, Canada; Natalie Prohaska, MD, Comprehensive Program for Eating Disorders, University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital, Ann Arbor, Mich .; JAMA network open, December 7, 2021, online