How the Pandemic Affected Those With Eating Disorders

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Roughly 1.25 million people in the UK were struggling with an eating disorder before Covid struck. Unfortunately, as the pandemic stretched on, so did the severity of their illnesses.

Many who had clawed their way out of disordered eating behaviors began falling back to their old habits. The most impactful trigger of eating disorders is an environment of fear, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and isolation — the exact environment that the Coronavirus pandemic created. 

COVID-19: A Catalyst for Relapse and Worsening Eating Disorder Symptoms

As the UK government enforced lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, people with existing disordered eating problems and those recovering from these conditions had it rough.

By the end of 2020, total admissions for these disorders had risen sharply compared to the previous year. For instance, in England alone, hospital admissions (in 2020) for those aged between 18-39 years was 11,712. In 2019, before the pandemic, the number of hospitalizations within this age group was 8,586.

Rising cases of hospitalizations were reported as early as the second half of 2020 among young people and adults with binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa. In addition, those admitted stayed in hospitals much longer, suggesting that their symptoms were more intense.   

Children and teenagers with these disorders, who would, on normal occasions, focus their energy on academics or extracurricular activities, suddenly had a lot of free time on their hands when schools closed down.

Most focused on pursuing their extreme “healthy” eating or fitness goals to cope with the disrupted school life. During the pandemic period, the referral of children and adolescents to eating disorder programs was increasingly high.

Pressure to Stay Fit During the Pandemic Became Too Much 

Spending more time indoors meant exposure to Covid-related information across news outlets and social media.

There was a lot of chatter about the link between obesity and Covid complications. People constantly talked about quarantine and its connection to weight gain. The social media atmosphere was full of reminders about what (and what not) to eat to remain fit and fight the virus.

These messages created panic amongst those living with and recovering from anorexia and bulimia. Most felt a strong need to engage in excessive restrictive eating and purging behaviors to lose weight. Sadly, many ended up relapsing, as others developed life-threatening symptoms.

Physical activity would top the list whenever experts and people online discussed ways to remain healthy during the pandemic. As fitness-related content flooded people’s social media feeds, much battling anorexia and bulimia became more cautious about their weight. Their obsession with working out was much higher during the pandemic than any other period.

A majority made excessive exercising part of their daily routine, and their risk of serious medical complications increased. Most had to be hospitalized much longer to reverse the health damages caused by compulsive exercise.

Food Shortage Concerns During the Pandemic Triggered Relapse

The pandemic made those with binge eating disorders vulnerable to frequent binge eating episodes.

As Covid progressed, concerns over food shortages prompted many to stock up their  “comfort foods” in large quantities. With isolation and fewer distractions at home, mindless snacking and eating to kill boredom became the norm. The likelihood of relapse for those already receiving treatment for binge eating disorder was high during the pandemic year.

Individuals recovering from anorexia and bulimia are often put on specific diets. As supermarkets grappled with food shortages, most of those with these conditions couldn’t find the exact foods they wanted in their diet, leading to them relapsing.

Demand for Eating Disorder Treatment Soared With the Pandemic

Several outpatient facilities had to limit the number of eating disorders patients to attend to as a safety measure to prevent the virus from spreading in their facilities. In most cases, outpatient providers had wait-lists going for months.

Those with bearable symptoms delayed seeking treatment. Their symptoms became severe with time, and they required intensive care. Treating and managing these conditions became harder during the pandemic.

Accessing in-patient medical care was a major challenge. Most in-patient units were already operating at full capacity because of the high number of people admitted for serious disordered eating symptoms.

Leading eating disorder charity in the UK, Beat, reported that since Covid began, it’s witnessed a 95% increase in the number of calls to its helpline. People battling these illnesses were in dire need of in-person support, which they couldn’t get due to social distancing and isolation measures.  

Treatment Services For Eating Disorders Still Available

When the country imposed lockdowns, various situations emerged — people recovering from disordered eating conditions relapsing, rates of hospital admissions skyrocketing, and access to treatment becoming difficult.

All hope is not lost, though, as a treatment for eating disorders is available through services such as to put you on the road to recovery amid the ongoing pandemic.

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