Eating disorders in Canadian youth surged during the pandemic. What parents need to know after kids were 'sicker than ever'

A new report suggests increased anxiety and isolation could be behind the rise.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

This story makes mention of eating disorders that may be disturbing to some of our audience. To find support, contact the National Eating Disorder Information Centre at 1-866-NEDIC-20.

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Is your child struggling with an eating disorder? Here's how you can approach it. (Getty)

As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, a less visible crisis was affecting Canadian youth. A new report revealed there was a 60 per cent increase in inpatient hospitalizations and a staggering 126 per cent rise in emergency room visits for eating disorders from 2020 to 2022, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The CHEO Research Institute and Deloitte Access Economics, in collaboration with more than 40 healthcare and academic partners across Canada, found that more youth (ages five to 25) needed healthcare services during the pandemic. Still, only 20 per cent of youth with eating disorders seek help.

"Many people with eating disorders only seek treatment years after their symptoms first develop. Given the impacts of the pandemic, there may be a significant proportion of young people who have developed an eating disorder and are yet to seek treatment," the report read.

They were really sicker than ever... They were severely malnourished.Dr. Debra Katzman, via CTV

The financial impact of this rise in eating disorders is also alarming. The healthcare system has seen an incremental cost impact of $39.5 million during the pandemic, marking a 21 per cent increase. That number is likely higher, the report suggested, since general practitioner services, day treatment programs and similar services were excluded.

The increase in hospital visits was first noted by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children in late 2020, where Dr. Debra Katzman observed youths arriving to emergency rooms in dire conditions, CTV reported.

"They were really sicker than ever... They were severely malnourished; they had numerous medical complications and they had numerous mental health comorbidities," Katzman told CTV.

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Increased anxiety, stress and a sense of loss of control could have contributed to the rise in eating disorders, according to the new research published April 18. (Image via Getty)

She attributed the rise to the pandemic isolation, including an uptick in social media engagement and disrupted daily routines. "They were seeing themselves online a lot and were being exposed to a lot of fat phobic messages, diet talk that they would not have normally been exposed to in such excess," Katzman said.

The study suggested increased anxiety, stress and a sense of loss of control could have contributed to the rise in eating disorders.

To help parents navigate this difficult topic, Yahoo Canada previously spoke with Ary Maharaj, a psychotherapist who is also the outreach coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Read on for everything you need to know about eating disorders and how to talk about them.

Eating disorders go beyond food, according to Maharaj, involving a complex interplay of biological, psychological and social factors.

It's crucial for parents to recognize that an eating disorder reflects a person's response to stress and challenges in their life. These stresses "lead to a persistent disturbance in eating and eating-related behaviours that affect someone's health, Maharaj explained.

Eating disorders are diverse and can impact anyone. (Getty) Sad woman suffering from lack of appetite or unwillingness to eat unpalatable wholesome food recommended for diet. Dissatisfied girl eats vegetable salad or soup and diet to lose weight
Eating disorders are diverse and can impact anyone. (Getty)

He emphasized parents also need to recognize that comments about weight and body image can contribute to this problem. "Receiving weight and body-related comments from loved ones can fall under some of those social factors that can fuel thoughts and feelings central to a person's eating disorder."

The impacts of eating disorders extend to both mental and physical health, with symptoms ranging from distorted body image to rigid eating habits and potential organ system issues. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue.

There are mental and physical health symptoms and consequences of eating disorders. Some of these include

  • Distress around what their body looks like

  • Body dysmorphia

  • Rigid thoughts and feelings around food (counting calories, removing whole food groups)

  • Moralizing food ("good" versus "bad")

  • Exhaustion, tiredness and fatigue

  • Irritability, especially in young people

He explained eating is important for physical development and brain function especially in youth. "If they're not fed, they're going to be a little more irritable, and it is also then going to make their stomach growl, they might feel faint, they might feel dizzy."

This can cause changes to the body. "In young people that can get as disastrous as their brain losing mass, because weight loss can happen from anywhere in their body, and that's mass that can't always be recovered," Maharaj said.

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Parents are advised to address emotions and feelings before physical changes. (Getty)

If parents notice signs of an eating disorder, Maharaj advised initiating conversations from a place of concern and curiosity. Using "I" statements to express worry and locating themselves emotionally can create a safe space for the child to open up. Parents should also choose moments when their child is comfortable for these talks.

He added it's important to not push youth into opening up if they're not ready, and to focus on the emotional and mental wellbeing rather than what you're seeing (like weight loss, for example).

An example of a question could be:

  • "I'm worried about you, you don't seem like yourself lately, what's been going on?"

Or, parents who want to be more direct can ask:

  • "I've noticed changes in your eating lately, you're not finishing the lunch that I give you and that's concerning. I'm here and I care, can we talk about this?"

According to Maharaj, it's never too early to seek help. "The first time you notice something is an OK time to reach out. If it's a concern for you, it's a concern to us," he assured.

The earlier an eating disorder is spotted and treated, the better.

However, for immediate medical attention parents need to look at physical indicators like fainting, chest pains, gastro-intestinal issues and dizziness. "Those are signs that you might want to escalate that conversation really quick," Maharaj claimed.

Seeking professional help is encouraged, and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre provides anonymous and free services to offer support, resources and information.

Anyone, including youth, can reach out to a NEDIC helpline or live chat for support. The number for the toll-free helpline is 1-866-633-4220 and its email is:

Youth struggling with mental health can also use an anonymous texting service available 24/7 with Kids Help Phone, by texting CONNECT to 686868.

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