ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The pandemic has led to a rise in eating disorders, especially among children and adolescents. 

Monday is the start of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, a week to educate the public about the realities of eating disorders, while providing hope and support to those impacted. 

But what exactly is an eating disorder and how do you know if someone might be battling the illness?

Dr. Taylor Starr, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Director of the Children and Adolescent Eating Disorder Program with URMC, said eating disorders are illnesses that develop that cause the brain to develop a “series of thoughts or rules, typically focused around body weight, shape, size, exercise, movement, food, and push us to engage in behaviors that are extreme around food, eating, weight, shape, size, and movement.”

Starr said eating disorders develop as a “maladaptive coping mechanism” to deal with underlying thoughts and feelings. 

“The rules that the illness develops in our brain make us think that the illness is all about body weight, shape, size and appearance. But in fact, it gives us this sense of control,” Starr said. “And by following those rules, we, the person, feels that they’re in control, when in fact the illness is controlling them, and it’s serving as a way to cope with those thoughts and feelings.”

At Golisano Children’s Hospital, Starr said they have an adolescent eating disorder program to help children with eating disorders. Most of the patients they see are outpatient, but they also have an inpatient hospitalization program for those who have medical complications and need treatment. 

“When children or adolescents are seen in our outpatient office, they are seen by an adolescent medicine expert provider and we do a complete evaluation for an eating disorder,” Starr said. “Part of that is a big medical component to see how the extreme behaviors have impacted individual physiologically, and we then help the patient and family develop a team to move for recovery.

Starr said this often includes working with a registered dietician who has expertise in taking care of patients with eating disorders, a therapist in the community and partnering with a primary care provider.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a rise in eating disorders across the country. The National Eating Disorder Awareness hotline has seen a 107% increase in calls. Locally, there’s been a rise as well.

“We’ve seen a drastic rise in the number of children adolescents with eating disorders,” Starr said. “In our outpatient settings, we have seen an over a 36% rise in the number of office visits for children and adolescents with an eating disorder.”

There has also been a 26% rise in hospital admissions for children and adolescents with an eating disorder in Western New York, Starr said.

Dr. Nicole Cifra, an Adolescent Medicine Fellow at URMC, said they have seen children at a younger age coming in with eating disorders during the pandemic.  

“One of the things that we’ve seen more recently is that people are coming to us at younger ages, as well as in a more medically compromised state,” Cifra said. “So people are extremely ill, both psychologically and at times medically, which makes prompt recognition and treatment really important.”

Cifra said the pandemic has led to an increase in eating disorders because it’s really heightened a lot of things eating disorders thrive on.

“Unpredictability, in some cases isolation, really difficult life circumstances, personal illness, illness, or death of family members,” Cifra explained. “So there are a lot of things that have happened during this pandemic that can really be seen as risks or kind of points that can push someone over the edge into developing an eating disorder.”

Some signs of eating disorders include fear of eating infront of others, changes in mood, fatigue, being cold when others around you aren’t, and changes in exercise patterns. 

While the illness is most common among adolescents, Cifra said eating disorders can impact anyone. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that eating disorders really don’t discriminate based on age, gender, socio economic status, etc. There are people of all different groups and walks of life that have eating disorders,” Cifra said. 

She adds that roughly 10% of eating disorder cases are reported in men, but she believes that number is actually higher. 

“I think that everyone that sees patients or is involved in eating disorder treatment in any way would say that that’s likely an under estimate,” Cifra said. “I think that there are a lot of things that contribute to that and there’s a lot of stigma as well that’s unique to being a male suffering from a disease that is kind of thought more commonly to be a female disease.”

In addition to addressing the stigma surrounding eating disorders, Starr said ones’ family also plays a vital role in recovery. This is because family can create an environment for the individual to work on their recovery and thrive while doing so.

“We know families are part of the solution. They’re experts in their loved ones,” Staff said. “We have key experts to help recovery, sharing, we’re experts in illness, and family are experts in their loved one, and they are the mainstay part of treatment and recovery.”

Both Starr and Cifra add that recovery is possible and it’s important to know there is hope, no matter the journey you are on. 

“It is possible to recover from an eating disorder. There is help out there,” Cifra said. “One of my favorite things to tell patients and families is that I look forward to the day that you do not need to see me.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorder helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

You can also contact Golisano’s Child and Adolescent Medicine Eating Disorders Program by calling 585-275-2964.