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Eating Disorders

Why Eating Disorders Surged Through COVID-19

Research shows social factors during the pandemic exacerbated eating disorders.

Key points

  • The prevalence of eating disorders appears to have increased during the global coronavirus pandemic.
  • COVID-19 has created broader social risk factors that harm mental health, such as isolation, a lack of control, and persistent anxiety.
  • For some, increased food insecurity contributed to the problem, as did increased use of social and news media.
  • Limiting media consumption, seeking social connection, engaging in healthy activities, and pursuing therapy can help manage eating disorders.
 credit Anatoliy Sadovskiy/Adobe Stock Food: credit lassedesignen/Adobe Stock
Source: Plate: credit Anatoliy Sadovskiy/Adobe Stock Food: credit lassedesignen/Adobe Stock

Over the past decade, the prevalence of eating disorders—especially among adolescents and young adults—has been a growing problem. A review of studies published in 2019 found that eating disorders among young people across the globe more than doubled between 2000 and 2018. Since then, COVID-19 has created new challenges for people with eating disorders and those who treat them.

Although there isn’t a broad study yet that quantifies the impact of the pandemic, there are plenty of clues that COVID-19 has increased the prevalence of eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association helpline, for instance, reports a 40 percent increase in calls since March 2020.

And a 2020 study of 1,000 participants diagnosed with eating disorders in the U.S. and the Netherlands found those already diagnosed with anorexia were more likely to eat fewer meals per day, fast, and consume low-calorie meals since the pandemic started. Those with bulimia and binge‐eating disorder had more frequent binging episodes and urges to binge. Study participants also reported higher levels of anxiety and worries about the pandemic restrictions affecting their mental health.

Why Are Eating Disorders on the Rise?

What’s going on here? According to the experts, there are a lot of factors at play.

On the whole, COVID-19 has created broader social risk factors that can harm mental health and ultimately contribute to eating disorders. For example, experiencing a stressful life event such as having a sick relative or losing a job increases someone’s risk of developing an eating disorder. Anxiety and social isolation are also associated with eating disorders—two problems that have become more widespread during the pandemic.

“For many people, food becomes one thing that they feel like they can control in a life that feels filled with influences they cannot control,” explained Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, whose research focuses on understanding and addressing adolescent and young adult mental health challenges. “In the past year, in particular, everyday life has come to feel uncertain and unknowable, especially for many young people. Controlling food may thus feel like an accessible option for experiencing control in a stressful, uncertain environment.”

In addition, COVID-19 has led to specific circumstances that directly contribute to eating disorders. For starters, food insecurity—or the lack of consistent access to healthy food—is an exacerbating factor for eating disorders. Preliminary data show that food insecurity in the U.S. has more than tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic. And studies show that young people who are food insecure are more likely to be overweight and more likely to use unhealthy behaviors to control their weight.

As social interactions have been restricted to stop the spread of COVID-19, many people have turned to social media as a substitute. And there is evidence suggesting that media consumption—and specifically what researchers call problematic internet use—increases one’s risk of developing an eating disorder, leading to poorer attitudes towards eating and a negative self-image. In addition, research shows that exposure to stressful news coverage leads to heightened psychological distress for the person watching, and ultimately poorer attitudes about eating.

People with eating disorders also experienced restricted access to the resources that often help them improve their mental health, including fitness centers, regular health care visits, and therapy.

How Can We Manage Eating Disorders During COVID-19?

There are some tools available to address these increased risks and eating disorders. Telemedicine visits are a good option for those who benefit from therapy. In addition, there are online support groups for eating disorders that meet regardless of the participants’ geographic locations.

Individuals can also take concrete steps to reduce their risk or their symptoms. Limiting media consumption—especially content on social media that promotes a thin body image and media coverage of disasters—is an effective way to reduce your risk.

Finding creative ways to connect socially with others while maintaining the appropriate social distancing can help to reduce mental health symptoms, including symptoms of eating disorders. Hobbies, outdoor physical activities such as walking or biking, connecting with a religious organization, or pursuing online education are a few options.

The take-home message: The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risks and prevalence of eating disorders. There are steps that individuals can take for prevention and treatment, including telehealth visits, reduced media consumption and making an effort to connect with others.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.

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