By now, it’s no surprise to hear that the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated (and continues to exacerbate) mental health challenges of all kinds. Increasingly, the available research shows that the pattern holds true for eating disorders. More than a year and a half out from the start of restrictions, a number of studies indicate an increased eating disorder prevalence during COVID. New eating disorder diagnoses rose during the pandemic, and people who already had diagnosed eating disorders often experienced worse symptoms.
Diagnoses On The Rise
A study recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that the risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder began rising steadily in March 2020 and gradually increased over the rest of the year. Overall, the researchers found that eating disorder diagnoses went up by about 15 percent in 2020, in comparison to previous years.
The data set they analyzed was made up of health records of people under 30 years old, and the rise in diagnoses was most closely associated with teenagers and with anorexia nervosa diagnoses. The report also notes that the rise only showed up in females. Though research of this kind remains limited, these early results indicate pandemic conditions likely led to increased onset of eating disorders within a range of populations.
Worsening Eating Disorder Symptoms
A number of other studies indicate that the pandemic made eating disorder symptoms worse for people who had been diagnosed previously. One survey conducted early in the pandemic found that people with eating disorders reported a range of challenges and concerns related to their symptoms, including increased food restriction and more episodes of binge eating. Another qualitative study found similar results, with most people who responded saying that their previous eating disorders had returned or gotten worse since the start of the pandemic.
An analysis of posts on eating disorder-related social media forums also indicates that worsening symptoms were a major concern for people with eating disorders from the start of the pandemic, with many users posting about obsessive thoughts and worries about food and weight.
Possible Explanations for Increased Eating Disorder Prevalence During COVID
Interestingly, the British Journal of Psychiatry study found that being diagnosed with COVID itself was not associated with higher risk of eating disorder diagnosis, which suggests that other factors—like pandemic restrictions, lifestyle changes, and increased anxiety—were more likely the cause of the increase.
A group of authors writing in the International Journal of Eating Disorders note three primary ways that the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic might lead to these negative outcomes for people dealing with eating disorders:
- Disruptions to daily activities. The loss of clear routines, structures, and social supports could contribute to disordered eating behaviors.
- Effects of using and consuming media. Spending more time consuming distressing media (including social media) and having to “look in the mirror” during video calls might increase negative emotions and body image concerns.
- Emotional distress and fear of contagion. In addition to the general stress and anxieties of the pandemic, food-specific fears about disease may worsen disordered eating tendencies.
Though more research is necessary to fully understand the pandemic’s impact on the prevalence and intensity of eating disorders, the data so far indicate that clinicians need to be alert to the unique stresses and risks that have arisen over the past two years.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors, please reach out to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss treatment options.