Restrictions on food shopping trips can affect people struggling with anorexia and binge eating disorders. (iStock)

Pandemic complicates coping with eating disorders

The COVID-19 pandemic has made life difficult in many ways but it poses several unique challenges for those battling eating disorders. Myriad restrictions and mixed messaging can make it hard for people to manage their recovery and access treatment, according to researchers at Western University in Ontario.

‘The perfect storm’

“These conditions have created the perfect storm for eating disorder onset and relapse,” says Jaclyn Siegel, a doctoral candidate in social psychology and co-author of a paper published in Eating Disorders: Journal of Treatment and Prevention.

A major difficulty can be the limited access to restaurants and grocery stores which impedes the flexible eating and proper nutrition that is important to eating disorder recovery. Those with restrictive eating disorders may use public health directives about limiting shopping trips to avoid buying food and eating. Alternatively, that advice may encourage people to stockpile food which can be problematic for those struggling with binge eating.

Forced closures or restricted hours of gym, fitness centres and pools have made it more difficult to engage in gentle physical activities that can help people to manage their conditions. It has also become much harder to get appointments with doctors, therapists and others who provide treatment.

Gentle exercise may help manage an eating disorder but may be harder to do from home. (iStock)

‘Eating disorders are…severe psychiatric conditions’

“Eating disorders are often trivialized as a benign affliction of wealthy, thin, teenage, white girls, but in reality, eating disorders are severe psychiatric conditions that can affect people of all backgrounds, genders, and body sizes. They have biological, psychological and social roots, and an extremely high mortality rate,” says Siegel in a news release.

She notes that social media posts and general discussion have also amplified messages that may be harmful to those with eating disorders. She mentions talk about avoiding putting on weight or “quarantine fifteen,” and news that obesity is a greater risk for COVID-19. Siegel says that while research links obesity to increased mortality for those who catch the virus, the studies do not control for comorbidities or other social determinants of health that may explain the link. “Hearing messages that gaining weight during the pandemic is both inevitable and disastrous for your health can be really challenging, particularly for those trying to gain or maintain weight,” says Siegel.

Group therapy can help people with eating disorders but have been curtailed due to the pandemic. (iStock)

Men too struggle with eating disorders

Research indicates an estimated 3.5 to 6.5 per cent of women and 3 to 3.5 per cent of men have experienced eating disorders in their lifetime. 

This study provides recommendations for health professionals and individuals who are navigating recovery. They include seeking medical advice from telehealth programs, guided self-help and connecting online with support groups.

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