Adolescent Anorexia Up 65 Percent in Canada During First Wave of Pandemic, Study Finds

A recent study has shown that cases of adolescent anorexia increased 65 percent in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, published on Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed the number of anorexia nervosa diagnoses and hospitalizations for those age 9 to 18 within six Canadian specialist hospitals between January 1, 2015, and November 30, 2020. The hospitals are in different Canadian provinces and serve large centers of the country's population.

Before the pandemic, the hospitals diagnosed roughly 24.5 new cases of the eating disorder each month. During the first wave of the pandemic, the centers diagnosed 40.6 cases each month—a 65 percent increase.

Anorexia-related hospitalizations also increased from 7.5 cases per month before the pandemic to roughly 20 per month during the pandemic's first wave—a 166 percent increase.

These increases occurred even though local health authorities urged people to avoid hospitals in order to allow greater numbers of COVID-19 patients to be treated.

adolescent teenage anorexia increase COVID-19 pandemic study
A recent study has shown that adolescent anorexia increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this photo illustration, a person stands on a scale while a measuring tape sits on the floor. vadimguzhva/Getty

Researchers noted that the physical indicators of anorexia were also more severe during the pandemic than before. Increased numbers of diagnosed patients experienced greater weight loss and slower heart rates than patients before the pandemic.

Researchers also noted that the hospitals with the largest increases were in Quebec and Ontario. Both provinces had the highest COVID-19 mortality rates at the beginning of the pandemic. Both also had some of the strictest lockdown measures.

The lockdowns disrupted young people's schooling, time with friends socializing in public and outdoor activities. Such disruptions can increase a person's risk for eating disorders.

Furthermore, as young people spent more time indoors, they likely spent more time on social media, the study said.

"Media use has been associated with an increased risk for disordered eating, in particular through exposure to thin ideals and diet-related content," the study says. "Social media trends referring to weight gain during confinement and a focus on home cooking and exercise routines may have further elevated the eating disorder risk among youth."

Researchers have long noted that stressful events can cause people with eating disorders to experience worse symptoms. Indeed, 40 percent of newly diagnosed patients counted in the study said that the pandemic triggered their eating disorders.

Other studies have shown that adult patients diagnosed with eating disorders experienced increased body dysmorphia, connected to a dissatisfied view of their bodies.

Numerous studies have also shown that the pandemic and lockdowns caused people across the world to experience declines in mental health. People with eating disorders often have a dual mental health diagnosis, leaving them to struggle with anorexia as well as other issues like anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the study's authors said.

"Research is still needed to better understand the drivers and prognosis for these patients and how best to prepare for their mental health needs in the event of future pandemics or prolonged social isolation," the study concluded.