What to know: Eating disorders increasing among youth

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been additional stressors that have affected young people’s mental health, such as increased anxiety and social isolation. This has also been the case with eating disorders. In fact, the number of teens visiting the ER for eating disorders doubled during the pandemic.

What’s more, anorexia is now the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, after asthma and obesity.

Eating disorders are often misunderstood. Knowing more about them can help people spot the signs and get appropriate, compassionate help.

What are the kinds of eating disorders?

  • Binge eating disorder is the most prevalent eating disorder. It is characterized by a sense of loss of control over how much one is eating, followed by a sense of shame or self-loathing over that episode.
  • Bulimia nervosa is characterized as episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors like self-induced vomiting or diuretic use.
  • Anorexia nervosa is the intense fear of gaining weight. Anorexia is often marked by the failure to maintain a healthy body weight due to self-imposed dietary restrictions. It can include extreme dieting or compulsive exercise, rapid weight loss, increased anxiety around eating and changes to one’s hair, skin and nails.
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), previously known as selective eating disorder, is a condition where people limit the amount or type of food eaten. This goes beyond “picky eating” and usually has an earlier onset than other eating disorders. What’s more, unlike with anorexia nervosa, people with ARFID do not have a distorted body image or extreme fear of gaining weight.

Do only women and girls have eating disorders?

No. While most people tend to associate eating disorders with women, the truth is that 1 in 3 people who have eating disorders are men. However, due to cultural bias, men may be less likely to seek help.

Men and women exhibit similar signs and symptoms and tend to suffer comparable physical complications, such as damage to the heart and other vital organs. The good news is that once in treatment, men generally show similar responses to treatment as women.

How can you spot the warning signs?

There are many common behaviors that can indicate someone might be struggling with an eating disorder, including:

  • Eating when already full or not hungry, or eating in secret
  • Extreme fluctuations in weight
  • Feeling depressed or ashamed about eating habits or body image
  • Excessive time preoccupied with muscle mass and time spent at the gym
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals

While each behavior on its own is not indicative of an eating disorder, together these symptoms, along with others, can help professionals diagnose someone with a clinically recognized eating disorder.

How can a person get help?

If you think someone is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to be empathetic and not blame them for their behaviors, while also helping them get professional help. Knowing more about eating disorders can also help with making informed decisions about people you care about.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please contact your doctor right away or call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.  

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