Chicago follows national trend as teen eating disorders spike

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical experts have noticed an alarming trend among our teens - a definitive spike in the diagnosis of eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia.

Though most teens have returned to in-person school and social activities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned of a noticeable increase in eating disorders among the age group. According to agency reports, teen eating disorders are at an all-time high, including an estimated doubling of the number of teen girls recently diagnosed.

And the trend is being seen locally, as well, with teens impacted by the isolation of the pandemic and a focus on social media, said Lacey Lemke, director of eating disorder services with Ascension Illinois.

“We've seen a definite increase in teens and families needing help with an eating disorder,” Lemke said. “There's been an increase in the seriousness of the cases we're seeing, the sheer number of teens needing help and a greater need to admit these patients to inpatient programs to stabilize them.”

Lemke said the pandemic increased the need for connection through social media, placing unrealistic body expectations on teens and shaping their sense of self and self-esteem. She said an estimated 45% of 17-year-olds were regular social media users in 2018, which shot up to between 95% and 97% most recently.

Stock PhotoTeen eating disorders are at an all-time high, medical experts say.

“Teens started to go inward, self-judging and developing eating disorders,” she said. “The pandemic shook all of us to our core. And when you're someone who struggles with mental health issues, the isolation and fear only intensifies your response. You can get caught up in the wrong groups getting information that's very harmful to you rather than helpful.”

Lemke said that while some teens are genetically predisposed to eating disorders, the new pressure was an added push. Groups and discussions that were harmful and pushed the “benefits” of eating disorders popped up and were difficult for social media outlets to monitor and delete.

Parents can help their teen by paying attention to how they're thinking about their bodies, Lemke said.

“Look for any fixation on weight, size and body image,” she said. “Watch for any secretive eating behavior, regularly passing on eating with the family or trips to the bathroom post-meal. Any distress around food is something to watch, as well.”

Eating disorders don't discriminate, Lemke said, with all genders, races and socio-economic statuses being affected.

“If you see your teen struggling, talk to them and check with their doctor,” she said. “There are programs out there to help in inpatient and outpatient settings, with access to specialized therapists and dietitians. Get to the 'why' to correct the behavior to avoid it becoming a lifelong issue.”

Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ascension Illinois. For more information, visit

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