By Parineeta Karumanchi
Published 3:14 EST, Thurs September 30th, 2021
A phenomenal upsurge in the number of adolescents suffering from eating disorders shows that the impact the coronavirus pandemic had on them was deep, systematic, and significant. The mother of a severely affected anorexia nervosa patient from Canada described how she had to rush her daughter more than 10 times to the hospital during the pandemic. Peyton Crest, a former 18-year-old from Minnesota says that she developed anorexia before but has relapsed twice since the pandemic began. These cases are only 2 amongst the hundreds of teenagers who have been placed at a higher risk of developing or maintaining eating disorders because of the pandemic. Emerging evidence supports the theory that the pandemic has led to an increase in eating disorders amongst adolescents. This article explores how eating disorders have significantly escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic amongst adolescents whose lives have been uprooted and upturned since it began in November of 2019.
What are eating disorders?
To begin with, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that manifest themselves physically in the form of abnormal eating habits. They can be described as bio-psycho-social which means that there are genetics, psychological factors, and social influences all at play. The most commonly known eating disorder is anorexia nervosa which is characterized by a distorted perception of weight. Combined with very restrictive eating patterns and a relentless pursuit to lose weight, anorexic patients suffer from severe malnourishment. Bulimia nervosa is just the opposite of anorexia nervosa; people engage in uncontrollable eating for a certain time until they are painfully full, after which they purge excessively to compensate for the calories gained.
Adolescence is a developmental milestone during which peer-to-peer social comparison is a significant aspect. Physical isolation has caused some teenagers to feel that their life is spinning out of control and to combat this, they resort to binge eating as a coping mechanism. Stefan Ehrlich, professor of psychological and social medicine said research has shown food restriction can lead to resistance to ghrelin, the “hungry hormone” produced by the gut that prompts people to seek food—a process “reinforced when adolescents are isolated from their peers.” This proves that social isolation can have detrimental effects on their mental health, leading to impoverished social and interpersonal lives.
Social media and its impact on the youth:
Moving on, another influential aspect of eating disorders is social media. Although social media apps like Instagram and Facebook were created to strengthen social ties, research has shown that it in fact leads to social withdrawal while increasing feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Social media offers a medium of constant comparison where your status is determined by the number of followers you have or the number of likes you gain for each post. In a survey of 227 female university students, women reported that they tend to compare their own appearance negatively with their peer group and with celebrities on social media. Limited physical interaction due to lockdown orders has caused more time to be spent on social media where unrealistic, surgically altered men and women are portrayed as what beauty is, making body image diversity biased to what they see online. To reach up these standards, teens start exercising and eating healthy. This positive start is the prelude to a tragic turn, however. As they try to achieve immaculate face structures and super-toned bodies, they start to submerge themselves under stress, insecurities, and mental illnesses like depression.
Recent data suggest that, in the US, an increased number of people have been getting their ‘news’ from social media than printed newspapers. Given the strict journalistic values around credibility and the complete lack of anything like that in the social media sphere, this is a major concern. The Internet, today’s technology landscape, due to its ubiquitous presence has been heavily relied on by teenagers where they discover nonsensical dieting plans and abnormal regimes that are falsely advertised to be transformative and healthy when in reality, they only contribute to atypical lifestyles. Eventually, these inconsistent eating habits lead to eating disorders. The image below shows how significantly eating disorders have risen.
SOURCE: Published by John Elflein , Apr 22, 2021
Figure 1: Number of U.S. individuals with eating disorders in 2018-2019, by condition
The pandemic has left an air of ever-increasing uncertainty, highlighted by post-traumatic stress and psychological disturbances. The focus of the course of the pandemic has been on minimizing its spread and since most of the medical resources have been concentrated here, a limited amount of attention has been given to the pandemic’s wider impacts. The global picture of people facing eating disorders is skewed, representing statistics coming from a limited number of countries only. “The belief that eating disorders are confined to high-income countries is a dangerous myth that perpetuates health disparities,” says Cynthia Bulik, professor of eating disorders at the University of North Carolina. Paediatrician Kritika Malhotra says that one out of 4 girls and one out of 5 boys have “distributed eating habits and behaviors in India.” This shows how widespread eating disorders are and the severity of this is only worsening with the pandemic.
It has been estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders during their lifetime as reported by the National Eating Disorders Association. The mean age of onset for most eating disorders is 12.5 years and this is only decreasing with the pandemic. Rates of obesity among children have been going off the charts since the pandemic began, contributing to increased cases of certain cancers, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and strokes. With close to 2 billion COVID cases confirmed worldwide and the contagion scale is still rising in affected countries as new strains of the virus are being discovered, it is taking an enormous toll on teenagers’ lives. It is on us to do everything we can to take steps and partner with our communities to safely return some normalcy to their lives.
Parineeta Karumanchi, Youth Medical Journal 2021
Feinmann, J. (2021). Eating disorders during the covid-19 pandemic. Bmj. doi:10.1136/bmj.n1787
Oakes, Kelly. “The Complicated Truth about Social Media and Body Image.” Bbc.com, BBC Future, 12 Mar. 2019, http://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190311-how-social-media-affects-body-image.