Researchers have observed a dramatic increase in the number of young adults seeking treatment for disordered eating behavior.
According to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, the rate of inpatient admissions for adolescents and young adults with eating disorders increased in the United States at a rate of 0.7% per month over the years preceding the pandemic. In 2020, the year of the pandemic’s first year, this growth was 7.2% per month.
From the spring of 2020 — when most Covid-19 restrictions/lockdowns were first put in place — through the spring of 2021, the number of eating disorder inpatient admissions about doubled. This reached its peak in April 2021.
“We were able to show that there was a significant increase in eating disorders patients at multiple locations across the country after the pandemic started,” Dr. Sydney Hartman Munich, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, said. The results were in line with the feelings we all felt working in our hospitals and clinics every day.
Individual hospitals reported an increase in cases of eating disorders over the pandemic. However, this study was the first to demonstrate the effect across the country, according to Dr. Jason Nagata. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Nagata wasn’t involved in the research.
According to the study, researchers analyzed data from 14 “geographically varied” hospital-based adolescent medical programs and one nonhospital eating disorder treatment program between 2018 and 2021. Hartman-Munich stated that although the research revealed an increase in people seeking treatment, it could not prove that the pandemic was responsible or whether the severity of the cases was worse during the pandemic.
She stated that eating disorders are a major public health concern for young adults and adolescents. “Eating disorders are severe, long-lasting, and potentially deadly. Recovery can take many years, even if you receive timely and appropriate treatment.”
The number of patients admitted to the hospital after the pandemic began to decline in 2021, but it remained higher than the levels before Covid-19.
Hartman-Munich stated that they hadn’t reached pre-pandemic baselines as of the end of the study, so the volume increase will likely be felt for some time.
More hands on the deck
Hartman-Munick stated that there are many reasons why people might be more inclined to seek treatment for eating disorders.
She said that it was a period of uncertainty with changes in daily routines, disruptions to food availability, concern about health, and a loss of control.
She said that the stark increase in eating disorders is a sign of the need for more doctors who are trained to treat them, as well as mental health professionals and dietitians with expertise in eating disorders.
Hartman-Munick stated that there is a need for more capacity in eating disorder programs and increased resources for Medicaid patients who are most vulnerable to treatment.
Nagata said that primary care physicians need to be more knowledgeable about the medical management of eating disorders.
How to help your child
Nagata stated that young adults and teens with eating disorders should seek professional treatment. This includes a multidisciplinary team, including nutrition and medical professionals.
He said that eating disorders could lead to serious medical complications, including damage to the heart, brain, and kidneys.
It is important to be aware of what to look out for. These disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, races, and sizes.
Nagata stated, “You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder by their appearance.”
Nagata stated that while there is a common misconception that eating disorders are only for girls, they can also happen to boys. He said that eating disorders in boys often manifest as an obsession with exercise and muscle building, with some focusing on supplements for muscle-building. These cases are often not reported and treated poorly.
Nagata stated that the most common warning signs for someone with an eating disorder are a preoccupation about size, weight, or exercise, which can lead to a decrease in quality of life. People with eating disorders can also withdraw from their routines and friends.
He said that other red flags included fasting, significant caloric restrictions, vomiting, or the use of laxatives or diet pills to lose weight.
Nagata stated that families should bring up these concerns to their healthcare providers when they notice them. Nagata said that a professional can diagnose an eating disorder and direct families to the appropriate resources.