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Why Eating Disorders Among Young People Are on the Rise During COVID-19

February 09, 2021

Isolation and extra time to spend comparing lives and bodies with others on social media is a recipe for increased eating disorders, especially among young adults. Dr. Laura Saunders, clinical coordinator of young adult services at the Institute of Living, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, said too many youth are torn from their regular lives and living more virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “They have copious amounts of time on their hands, they’re missing their sports, they’re missing their extracurricular activities and they’re spending excessive amounts of time on social media,” Dr. Saunders said. “When young people do that, they engage in a lot of social comparison – who’s having a better life, who’s thinner or more beautiful.” This existence is mired in what she called the “overall emotional emptiness,” in which young adults can feel inadequate and create a distorted view of themselves and their bodies. “What we know about eating disorders is there’s a lot about control that’s involved,” Dr. Saunders said. “(This can cause) full-blown, diagnosed eating disorders and what I call ‘disordered eating’ not quite at diagnosable level but still concerning and needing access to help and treatment.” Warning signs that a young adult is developing an eating disorder can include:

  • Excessive preoccupation with weight and/or calorie intake.
  • Changes in exercise, especially excessive exercise.
  • Taking in excessive amounts of food.
  • Any disturbance in food intake or the types of foods eaten.
  • Having a distorted body image.
“There’s a lot of excessiveness to eating disorders,” she said. Young adults in all socioeconomic groups are the most at risk for developing an eating disorder.  Although Dr. Saunders said they traditionally affected females more, she has seen more males diagnosed recently. The problem has increased during the challenges of the pandemic, she added. If a parent or teen is concerned about eating disorders, she suggested first touching base with the person’s pediatrician or primary care provider and have them perform a basic medical workup. Beyond that, psychotherapy and nutritional consults can be helpful. In severe cases, medication might be warranted.