COVID-19 could exacerbate eating disorders rates in children — here's how to combat it

COVID-19 could exacerbate eating disorders rates in children — here's how to combat it
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The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily moved students’ classrooms to their dining room tables. This has been quite an adjustment for teachers, students and parents alike. While most districts around the country are continuing with virtual learning for at least the rest of the school year, we can’t afford to not focus on students’ physical and mental wellbeing as well as their academic success. 

Before the pandemic, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) was working on the bipartisan Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act with Reps. Alma AdamsAlma Shealey AdamsHelp reverse devastating health disparities by supporting the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard COVID-19 could exacerbate eating disorders rates in children — here's how to combat it MORE (D-N.C.) and Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerWuhan is the final straw: The world needs to divest from China On The Money: Hopes fade for coronavirus relief deal this month | Burr problem grows for GOP | Layoffs hit record high of 11 million in March House poised to pass coronavirus relief bill: What you need to know today MORE (R-Mo.). The Act was introduced to the House on May 7 and would encourage schools to include eating disorders prevention within their Local School Wellness Policies by supporting school nutrition and physical activity environments. 

Currently, Local School Wellness Policies focus on obesity prevention, which is often based on the incorrect and harmful assumption that people need to achieve a certain body weight to be “healthy.” This bill would also ensure that mental health professionals are included in the development of these policies.  

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While this bill was written in a pre-pandemic world, eating disorders triggers have been exacerbated since the COVID-19 outbreak. Whether it be falling back into old patterns of restricting food, excessively exercising to feel a sense of control, or feeling increased anxiety over larger quantities of food on hand, it makes sense that those struggling with or in recovery from disordered eating or eating disorders may be using disordered behaviors to help them feel better.    

As a mother and someone who has experienced atypical anorexia, this is extremely troubling to me. My kindergartener misses her classmates and the structure of a typical school day provides. With her added stress, I am hyper-aware of my responsibility to neutralize conversations around food, physical activity, and weight in our household and the link between those things and an increased potential for her to develop disordered eating behaviors.  

Emerging research shows a strong correlation between food insecurity and eating disorders. The global food insecurity rate could double in 2020 due to COVID-19. This is especially troubling when you consider the millions of children across the US who depend on schools to provide most of their meals.  

There’s also the increased concern about the way food consumption and stockpiling are being discussed, or joked about, both interpersonally and online. With students now spending more time on computers than ever before, it’s difficult to ignore photos of empty grocery store shelves, “quarantine 15” jokes or encouragement to use this time to “get in the best shape of your life.” When those messages are reinforced by parents, teachers and classmates through harmful, fatphobic messaging, this could greatly impact a young person’s self-esteem. 

Eating disorders will affect 30 million Americans of all body sizes and two-thirds of youth in higher weight bodies are at risk for an eating disorder. Each month, one million children engage in risky behaviors in an attempt to control their weight. Organizations like the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) and the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (NCEED) are currently collecting data to capture COVID-19’s impact on the eating disorders community. Given the immense response that NEDA has received from our community over the past few weeks, it will likely be far direr than we can anticipate.  

Though school is not currently in session in the traditional sense, we can’t delay supporting students’ mental and physical health. A bill like the Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act would provide the blueprint that schools need to provide critical support to students who may have relapsed into or began exhibiting harmful eating disorders behaviors during their time away from school. It’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to mitigate potential risks and give our children a chance for a healthy and safe future. 

Joslyn Smith is the director of public policy and community relations at the National Eating Disorders Association