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Why Pandemic Stress is Causing an Increase in Eating Disorders

closed sign in front of cafe depicting the impact of the pandemic

Eating disorders, especially among young people, more than doubled between 2000 and 2018, according to a review of studies published in 2019. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, experts across the globe have reported a sharp increase in the number of people seeking help for eating disorders. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline reported a 40 percent increase in calls since March 2020.

Surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their lives. While eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights, research shows that eating disorders are particularly prevalent among the LGBTQIA+ community.

Eating disorders are serious but treatable diseases. However, without treatment, an eating disorder can be fatal. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) cites statistics warning:

  • Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose.
  • 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder (one death every 52 minutes).
  • About 26% of people with eating disorders attempt suicide.

What is Causing the Rise of Eating Disorders Since the Pandemic Began?

Although genetic factors increase the risk for some to develop an eating disorder, other factors also play an important role. Fear, isolation, persistent anxiety, and feeling a loss of routine and control are all risk factors for eating disorders. The pandemic has increased these risk factors for many.

Disrupted Daily Routine

Many people rely on the normality of their daily routine to stay on track with their health-related goals. Disruption of that routine can increase stress, cause sleeping problems and derail eating and exercise goals, all of which increase the risk for eating disorders.

Loss of Social Support

Having a strong social support network is important to most people and may be crucial to some. Isolation and loss of social support are major risk factors for eating disorders, substance use disorder, and other mental disorders.

With school closures and many office personnel working from home since March 2020, many people have lost their in-person support network. Even friends and families have had limited access to one another over the past year. While video chats and online support groups are helpful, for many that is not enough.

Financial Worries

The fallout from the COVID pandemic includes unprecedented numbers of people losing their jobs or businesses, creating extreme financial hardship for many. The stress, depression, and fear engendered by financial problems not only increases the incidence of eating disorders but is also known to increase domestic and other violence, substance use disorders, suicide rates, community unrest, and other serious problems.

Coping with Fear

The pandemic has increased levels of fear worldwide. People are afraid they or loved ones will contract COVID-19, have heard the frightening statistics about infection and death rates, and believe they have little ability to control the outcome. Misinformation and disinformation have made a critical situation worse, with many people unsure of the facts.

For some, controlling the food they eat is their way of coping with persistent fear. Many people are warning about the “COVID 15,” referring to the number of pounds they gained during lockdown. This can cause great fear for those with eating issues, who may respond by tightening their control on food intake, increasing purging or using other dangerous methods to control their calories.

Food Insecurity

The pandemic has contributed to food insecurity for many. Researchers have found a link between food insecurity and a higher risk of disordered eating. A study published in April 2021 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found a “significantly greater frequency of objective binge eating, compensatory fasting, and ED-related impairment for students with food insecurity compared with individuals without food insecurity.

Social Media

Many people have been spending more time on social media since the onset of the pandemic. Numerous studies have concluded the more often people, especially young people, use social media, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder.

While social media is useful for staying in touch with friends and family, it has a dangerous downside. Research finds many social media users compare themselves unfavorably to the appearance, accomplishments, and “perfect” lives portrayed by friends who post. This can contribute to poor self-image, anxiety, and depression, all risk factors for eating disorders.

Managing Eating Disorders

Whether you are struggling with an eating disorder or worried about developing one, there is help available, even if you are still hesitant to meet with others face-to-face.

  • Schedule telehealth visits with an addiction or other mental health professional.
  • Maintain social connections via video chats, online support groups, online clubs, and other virtual programs.
  • Limit or avoid social media, negative news, and TV shows.
  • Practice meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and positive thinking. Read inspirational stories.
  • Exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, avoid alcohol and drugs and maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
  • Connect with nature by walking, biking, bird watching, or another outdoor activity.
  • Stay connected with your spiritual beliefs.

It is important to understand that although eating disorder is serious, it is treatable. Reach out for help by contacting your physician or an addiction specialist for guidance.

Turning Point of Tampa has been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

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