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Eating disorders increase among kids, teens during pandemic

Pediatricians say stress and anxiety during the pandemic are likely contributing factors to an increase in eating disorders among kids and teens.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The pandemic has changed so many things: The way we work and learn, who we see and what we can and can't do. Doctors believe the stress from all of it is impacting kids and teens in an alarming way.

“We are in sort of an eating disorder crisis,” said Dr. Nicole Hinkley-Hynes, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente Northwest. “With the anxiety they feel about the world around them, they turn to things they can control including their diet and exercise.”

Just this year, Hinkley-Hynes said she's seen a 25-30% increase in children referred to the hospital’s eating disorder program, be it for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.

“There are backlogs all over the city and all over the state to reach appropriate care for this,” she said.

Cases are up nationally, too. A recent study surveyed 80 health care organizations and more than 22,000 patients ages 12 to 18. The study found a 25% increase in eating disorders since the pandemic began. Among girls, hospitalizations for eating disorders were up 30%.

“This is the mental health disorder with the highest mortality rate,” said Hinkley-Hynes. “Above depression, above suicidality.”

For that reason, doctors are asking parents to watch for signs of disordered eating in kids:

  • Refusing to eat at the table with family
  • Preparing food for others that they don't eat
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Eating or exercising in their room
  • Sneaking food out of the kitchen
  • Watching a lot of food shows on TV
  • Overuse of social media

To help, doctors offered the following suggestions to parents: 

  • Limit phone/WiFi access at night
  • No phones at mealtime
  • Provide three meals and two to three snacks per day for kids
  • Model healthy eating and don't talk about dieting

Hinkley-Hynes said parents who suspect their child might need help should call their pediatrician as soon as possible.

“It's not often you get a diagnosis of an eating disorder and then boom, you have to be in a residential care facility,” said Hinkley-Hynes. “There are many, many options before that.”

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