June 15, 2021

UW Health sees twice as many adolescent eating disorders during the pandemic

Madison, Wis. — Eating disorder cases among adolescent and young adult patients have nearly doubled since 2019 according to UW Health.

Eating disorders have been increasing at a slow, steady rate over the past several years, but the latest trend during the pandemic is concerning, according to Dr. Paula Cody, UW Health adolescent medicine specialist.

"This is a national trend we are seeing locally as well with patients between the ages of 12 and 18," she said. “It will be important for parents to look for warning signs."

Cody offered a few reasons why this may be happening:

  • Stress from the pandemic caused adolescents to choose unhealthy coping strategies. There are wide ranges of stressors that could include stress at home related to job/childcare, unknowns of the pandemic and decrease in social support groups (schools, friends).

  • Teens and young adults haven’t been able to participate in school, sports or extracurricular activities in the same way as pre-pandemic, but have extra time and energy on their hands. They might focus their energy on “getting healthy” and taking it too far.

  • Increased screen time. Patients are spending a lot of time looking at their faces during virtual school and this increased screen time has also translated to increased social media time where patients are exposed to filtered or photoshopped pictures creating an unrealistic body image expectation for teens.

Some key tips and advice for patients:

  • Look for warning signs such as change in eating habits, noticing a teen eating alone more (or any kind of isolating), avoiding foods they normally like, feeling guilty about eating, talking about their weight and body and making excuses not to eat.

  • Use protective factors like eating together and doing activities as a family.

  • As a parent or friend, do not talk about your own weight or dieting, do not comment on other people's weight or looks and focus on factors other than appearance when giving compliments.