Alberta eating disorder support programs seeing a rise in demand among youth

The rate of eating disorders among Alberta youth are on the rise. Local eating disorder programs are seeing the increased need.

Pediatric cases make up 40 per cent of University of Alberta Hospital's eating disorder program

A white car and a truck are parked outside a large brick building.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) offers 12 designated beds at the University of Alberta Hospital. But the demand is higher than the supply. (David Bajer/CBC)

Zachary Bell remembers the pain of wanting to try new foods but physically being unable to. 

Bell, 20, dealt with the issue for years, being dismissed as a picky eater by doctors, before he was finally diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) when he was 12.  

The disorder centres around a phobia of certain tastes, colours or textures. And it limits the amount of food and what a person can eat. 

"The doctors kept saying it's picky eating, he'll grow out of it," Bell said. 

Unable to consume any fruits and vegetables, dairy or meat products, he survived on a diet mainly of bread and crackers. 

A boy smiles in front of a tree.
Zachary Bell was misdiagnosed by doctors for years before he was diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) at 12 years old. (Submitted by Zachary Bell)

He knew it was more than picky eating when he began to avoid food entirely.

"I would just starve myself because I couldn't eat foods and [doctors] would threaten me with a feeding tube." 

Due to the lack of calories being consumed, children with AFRID deal with stalled weight gain and nutritional deficits.

The disorder can show up in kids as young as six years old. 

Eating disorder support programs in Alberta are seeing a rise in demand from people under the age of 18, according to Alberta Health Services. 

AHS operates an eating disorder treatment program for teens and adults in Edmonton and Calgary.

In Edmonton, AHS offers 12 designated beds at the University of Alberta Hospital. But Dr. Lara Ostolosky's wait list has about 15 people, 10 of whom are under 18, she said.

In 2020-21, 17 per cent of patients were pediatric. Now, it's 40 per cent said Ostolosky, a psychiatrist in the hospital's eating disorder unit.

The program sees a mix of 1,500 adult and young patients over the age of 12 every year. 

Zoom screenshot with Dr. Lara Ostolosky
Dr. Lara Ostolosky’s wait list for the in-patient program has about 15 people, 10 of whom are under 18 years old (Nishat Chowdhury/CBC)

In-patient admissions usually are at least three months. Patients need to become healthier before they can transition to other treatment sites, said Ostolosky.

"That's a long time. That's why the wait list is long, you can't let people leave until they're ready to or they don't do so well," Ostolosky said. 

The Alberta Wellness Center for Eating Disorders in Edmonton has also noticed the increase.

The centre hired more psychologists to support patients, said Dr. Michelle Emmerling, owner of the centre. She said there has been more demand from teens and people in their 20s.

"We were starting to wait list and things that we never wanted to do as a centre," Emmerling said. "We wanted this to be very accessible and not only individuals but their families to get support as quickly as possible."

While there is a disproportionate number of females using support services versus males, Emmerling says the centre is seeing an increase in male patients and those identifying as LGBTQ2S.

A woman sits for a portrait photo
Dr. Michelle Emmerling is a psychologist with over 20 years of practice. She says there's increased awareness around eating disorders. (Submitted by Michelle Emmerling)

Emmerling said she noticed more cases of eating disorders among teens and adults and people reaching out for support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Teens experienced a loss of basically their entire lives," Emmerling said. "They weren't able to go to school. They weren't able to be with friends, They weren't able to do any other extracurricular activities."

Male teens and children are underrepresented in statistics regarding anorexia, binge eating, and bulimia because they're less comfortable talking about it, Emmerling said.

Currently, women and young girls aged 10-19 are hospitalized for eating disorders at a rate 10 times higher than their male peers, according to an emailed statement from Health Canada. 

"Females also report a lower prevalence of good mental health than their male peers, and are almost twice as likely as males to use health services for a mood and/or anxiety disorder," the statement read. 

Longer wait lists, younger people

Angie Mellen, the executive director for the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta, says they've been seeing consistent demand from caregivers who are reaching out to seek support and get referrals for the adolescents in their lives who are suffering from disordered eating.

"Caregivers have an extremely tough job when they have to deal with an eating disorder," Mellen said. "A lot of parents feel shame and stigma along with the person who is experiencing it."

The average recovery time for an eating disorder is seven years, according to Emmerling. However, early detection in kids and teens can result in quicker treatments and faster recovery. 

"It absolutely can be treated much quicker and much sooner, especially if we can help kids understand what the impact this is having on their psychological well-being, but also their physical well-being," Emmerling said. 

"Kids often don't understand the harm they're actually doing to their bodies."

The Alberta Children's Hospital saw a 132% increase in hospitalizations for children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 years with anorexia nervosa, according to a new study.

The study examined anorexia-related hospital admissions from March 2014-2021. The data included 208 children and adolescents. 

In March, the federal government announced $1.28 million in funding to support youth experiencing eating disorders. The funding is part of a commitment of $100 million to support the mental health of those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.


Nishat Chowdhury is a reporter based in Edmonton. She is a 2023 CBC Joan Donaldson Scholar and has previously worked as a reporter and producer for CBC New Brunswick and CBC Toronto. She graduated with a bachelor's of journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University in June 2023. You can reach her at nishat.chowdhury@cbc.ca