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Eating Disorders and the Pandemic

By Christa Banister

“In a time where very little is controllable, eating can either provide comfort or a sense of dread, depending on someone’s specific triggers.”

It’s no secret the pandemic has changed everyone’s lives in unthinkable ways.

And for those who’ve struggled with eating disorders, which is roughly one in 10 Americans according to the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC), the “new normal” we keep hearing about hasn’t exactly been helpful in maintaining a healthy relationship with food, let alone fortifying the coping mechanisms vital for optimum mental health.

For some, the lack of a consistent schedule and changes in normal routine, not to mention social isolation, which inevitably leads to more meals alone, has created new challenges. In a time where very little is controllable, eating can either provide comfort or a sense of dread, depending on someone’s specific triggers.

For more on eating disorders, listen to this clip is from an upcoming episode of the Beyond Theory podcast, featuring eating disorders advocate and Meadows Senior Fellow Jenni Schaefer.

For those working from home now instead of heading to the office, a well-stocked refrigerator, a necessity as we try to limit grocery store visits, can be a friend or foe. Messaging surrounding the “Quarantine 15” or gaining the “COVID 19” on social media has also been damaging for those vulnerable to disordered eating, according to a study from the Wiley Public Health Emergency Collection. Images of empty store shelves or fear of food shortages have also been cited as triggers.

As a result, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reported a 78% increase in people getting in touch with the help line when compared to last year. A nonprofit organization that provides mental health support by text reported a similar uptick, noting that 83% of the inquiries were from women, more than half under the age of 17.

Eating Disorders and Trauma

Considering how disordered eating and trauma are often connected, the pandemic, basically a seemingly never-ending stream of distressing events, has contributed to setbacks for those already struggling with eating disorders.

Eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder…”

In a survey published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 62% of people with anorexia in the United States reported a worsening of symptoms, while nearly a third of Americans with binge-eating disorder reported an increase in episodes, according to a recent segment on Nashville Public Radio.

Only outranked by opioid use disorder, eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder according to research in the National Library of Medicine, which is why the pandemic’s effects have been so worrisome.

Dispelling the Myths of Eating Disorders

Recent research speaks to how common eating disorders are — and how they affect people that don’t immediately spring to mind. Often thought of as something that only affects young women, recent findings tell another story entirely.

  • It’s estimated that 30 million Americans— 20 million women and 10 million men — have struggled with an eating disorder during their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Experts conclude the number of men is “probably larger” because they’re less inclined to share their struggle due to perceptions. Eating disorders in men may also go undetected simply because they’re not being looked for by medical professionals.
  • Eating disorder patients who identify as LGBT struggle with higher rates of trauma, more severe symptoms, and a longer delay between diagnosis and treatment than cisgender, heterosexual patients, according a new study in The International Journal of Eating Disorders.
  • Binge eating disorder affects three times the number of people diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined. It’s also more common than breast cancer, HIV, and schizophrenia and doesn’t discriminate between race, age, or income.
  • Clean eating, while considered preferable to consuming processed food in terms of health benefits, is emerging as an unhealthy obsession for some, according to NPR. It can cause people to withdrawal socially for fear of eating “bad foods” and cause panic over “falling off the wagon,” affecting quality of life. When taken to the extreme, this unhealthy obsession with healthy eating can result in a condition called orthorexia, an eating disorder that is on the rise.
  • When trying to pinpoint the cause of eating disorders, many will simply chalk it up to our society’s preoccupation with thinness. But research at Michigan State University indicates a combination of factors, namely the intersection of biology, culture, genes, and environment.
  • Recent research also indicates that people who struggle with an eating disorder are 3.7 times more likely to also struggle with exercise addiction than those without eating disorders.
  • Social media trends can also lead to eating disorders. On TikTok, dipping carrots in mustard was trending this summer as young girls showcased their low-calorie snacks and kept a video diary of how little they were eating in a day. Experts say these real-time snapshots of disordered eating aren’t only dangerous for their health but for younger viewers (60% of TikTok’s 800 million users are between the ages of 16 and 24).

Hope for Those Struggling With Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious medical conditions that usually require expert help. At The Meadows Ranch, our caring, knowledgeable team includes psychiatric and primary care providers, registered dieticians, licensed master’s and doctoral-level therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses — all with proven expertise in treating eating disorders.

We create customized programs tailored to each individual’s needs and also address any co-occurring issues including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or trauma that may be contributing to the eating disorder. If you or someone you love needs help, contact us today.

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