The Pandemic’s Effect on Teen Eating

For so long, COVID-19 and the information around how it spread, how it impacted people and how it could be treated seemed to be evolving daily. Now, more than a year in and vaccination programs in full swing, I’m able to look other impacts the pandemic has had. That includes my own patients’ health and nutrition.

Routines quickly changed as parents and kids spent all their time at home. The initial quality family bonding soon turned into stir-crazy kids and teens with a lot of time on their hands. This led to two trends I’ve personally been witnessing through the pandemic: overeating and disordered eating. Both prevalent and both dangerous to a developing child or teens’ physical and mental health.

[READ: The Freshman 15 Is a Dangerous Myth.]

Child and Teen Weight Gain

Lack of structure and more time at home has led to many of my patients consuming more than they previously had. During in-person school days, kids do not have access to food at any time they want. Now, at home, they can grab a snack between classes at their leisure. If parents are also busy working from home, or if kids are with new caregivers such as grandparents, this opens the door for new and different access to food.

In addition, parents are stressed. There have been a million reasons to be stressed this past year, and you don’t need me to list them for you, but it may have led to easier meals or lack of structure for yourself and for your family. Families are also facing financial hardships that they may never have before, and this changes access to food in more ways than one. No one can be faulted for any of this, but regardless of the reason, child and teenage weight gain is a concerning trend I have been seeing over the past 6 to 12 months.

What sometimes comes next after this weight gain is the desire to lose weight. While an adult with a goal to lose weight may be appropriate, this is not always the case for adolescents. Some teens have come to me with goals to generally adjust their eating habits and get back into routine. This is when we then work on small lifestyle goals, no diets.

But there is a subset of adolescents whose mindset shifts and they begin to go down a road of disordered eating. A teenage girl or boy who may have previously been perfectly happy with their bodies may now experience something that triggers a desire to make changes.

[READ: Tips for Eating Disorder Recovery.]

Increase in Eating Disorders

Additional anxiety, depression, lack of structure, lack of access to friends, loss of big life moments can all fuel these feelings as well. COVID-19 is stressful for all ages. I cannot say that enough. And unfortunately what we have been seeing is an uptick in eating disorders over the past year: anorexia and binge eating disorder, as well as a non-clinical term “orthorexia.” Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with proper or “healthy” eating. Adolescents may be overly fixated on nutritional content of foods, reducing intake to only foods they perceive as “healthy” to the point where there can be both physical and psychological health consequences.

This would be a term I may use for a lot of teenage focus on nutrition that I’ve seen through the pandemic. A kid or teen who used to eat anything suddenly doesn’t want to eat sugar (sub in dairy, grains, carbs, fruit, fat, etc.) because to them it’s not “healthy.” I have been working with this population for many years now, and anecdotally, this is the most rapid increase I’ve seen over the past year. And it all starts with “at the beginning of quarantine I…”

Many patients are now coming in with significant weight loss, placing them in the category of malnutrition, because eating habits were changed over the past year. What can start out slow and seemingly insignificant (going vegetarian or not wanting to snack as much) can quickly spiral into full-blown disordered eating patterns.

[READ: Healthy Eating for Families.]

What Parents Can Do

So what can parents do? Be aware and talk to your kids. If you notice changes in eating patterns, on either end of the spectrum, take note of that. If able, resume family meals, which have been shown to have a positive effect on both kids and teens eating habits, body image and weight status. Do your best to keep the whole family on a schedule with eating. The virtual craziness is real, but don’t let meals suffer from this.

Without regular meals, some people are overly snacking, while others may then get away with not eating without anyone noticing. Parents can make healthy food choices readily available, even quick and easy options can work. And please serve similar foods to the entire family. Allowing one kid to have something and restricting another kid can cause detrimental food mindsets down the line. Nutritious foods and fun foods can fit for all family members.

If parents have any concerns don’t hesitate to talk to your child’s pediatrician or seek out a registered dietitian. Eating is complex, even for adults in the least stressful of times! Don’t expect your teen to be able to tackle it all on their own.

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