Child expert at Hamilton’s McMaster University investigating pandemic-related eating disorders

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Published January 10, 2022 at 3:39 pm

A pediatric expert at McMaster University in Hamilton is using a federal grant to investigate the rise in pandemic-related eating disorders.

A pediatric expert at McMaster University in Hamilton is using a federal grant to investigate the rise in pandemic-related eating disorders.

Jennifer Couturier’s study is underway and it involves interviews with 70 children, parents, clinicians, and administrators. She is also piloting a parent-peer support program to help families, which will be rolled out in Hamilton, Halifax, and Calgary.

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Couturier told McMaster University’s Brighter World publication that referrals to her clinic have doubled since the pandemic started in early 2020 — up to 20 to 30 per month from a pre-pandemic figure of between 10 and 15. Nationwide hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa have nearly tripled from a pre-pandemic monthly average of seven to 20, she said.

“It is critical that we understand why the numbers of eating disorders have gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Couturier, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences and medical co-director of the Pediatric Eating Disorders Program at McMaster Children’s Hospital.

“Many youngsters told us that they lacked structure after their schooling moved online, so they focused on their body image and saw social media posts about people gaining weight, which often frightened them. This led many children and youth to focus on their food intake, diet and exercise as something thing they could still control, having lost regular contact with their friends, classmates and extended family.”

A pediatric expert at McMaster University in Hamilton is using a federal grant to investigate the rise in pandemic-related eating disorders.

Couturier, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences and medical co-director of the Pediatric Eating Disorders Program at McMaster Children’s Hospital.

The most common disorder Couturier and her colleagues are seeing in children and youth is anorexia.

Another commonly observed condition is avoidant-restrictive food disorder, which occurs when a child never grows out of being a picky eater. This can lead to delayed weight gain and growth.

Couturier said that children and parents also continue to feel the effects of food insecurity, increased poverty, limited or no contact with people outside their immediate households, missed routine vaccinations and health-care appointments, and a lack of access to mental health supports. This has led to higher rates of depression in children and youth, she says.

A lack of normal social interaction during the pandemic has also stripped older children and teenagers of their growing independence at a critical life stage, causing what Couturier calls “developmental arrest.”

Couturier’s research is one of 70 studies on youth and family mental health from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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