In the past months, Covid-19 has dramatically expanded across the world. Only a few countries, such as Vietnam, Greece, Iceland, Jordan, and Slovenia contained it. Navigating the pandemic has been difficult for everyone but for people with eating disorders, the lockdown intensified the issues.
Eating disorders and coronavirus
UK healthcare provider Huntercombe Group’s consultant psychiatrist Dr. Mark Tattersall, who specializes in treating teens with anorexia nervosa, previously shared via Express and Star that the lockdown has been unsettling to some people. While it ensures the safety of people against Covid-19, food shortages caused a lot of anxiety to those with eating disorders.
Dr. Tattersall said that a lot of patients find it difficult to articulate what they’ve been feeling during the lockdown. With one person per household allowed to do food shopping, the person with the eating disorder can’t check the labels on foods and choose what is being purchased.
Changes in routine and lack of gym facilities also made it hard for those with eating disorders. UK’s eating disorder charity Beat has seen a 73% increase in people accessing its services since the lockdown. Izzy, not her real name, was featured by BBC. It says that she relapsed during the lockdown and is now in an inpatient in a psychiatric ward. Izzy, 24, said that everything she depends on as a tool to survive every day was taken away overnight. “The only thing I felt I had left was anorexia,” she added.
Paul Jenkins, an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Reading, also said that those with anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa experienced a worsening symptom and increased anxiety in the early stages of Covid-19 outbreak. Yet, it’s too early to say conclusively the reasons for such. What is clear is that pandemic and containment measures have disrupted people’s everyday activities. Because of that, it may have left people with eating disorders feeling out of control.
Feeling out of control: How it influences eating behavior
In 2016, psychologist Franzisca V. Froreich and researchers at the University of Southwest Australia studied the role of self-control in a group of 175 females with anorexia nervosa (AN) – an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight and intense fear of gaining weight. Those with AN struggle for control and a sense of identity. They place a high value on controlling their shape and weight that they would use extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.
The purpose of the Australian study was to determine what form of individual self-control was most associated with disorder eating. Just as the researchers hypothesized, they found that obsessive-compulsive symptom and eating disorder symptoms were positively linked with an external locus of control, feelings of ineffectiveness, fear of losing self-control, and a negative sense of control
Aside from feeling out of control, the stress of living with a threat of a life-threatening coronavirus and barriers to accessing treatment could have resulted in greater attention on shape and weight. In turn, it could have brought changes in people’s eating behavior, such as using food for emotional comfort and stockpiling certain foods.
How to support people struggling with an eating disorder
Healthcare professionals provided practical steps that anyone can take to mitigate the effects of the sudden change in their life due to the pandemic. One is by re-establishing the structure. This will manage the process of eating and promote a reliable and consistent schedule across several areas of life. To do this, create a plan for eating that follows guidelines around regularity. For example, breakfast-snack-lunch-snuck-dinner should not be more than four hours apart. This could potentially aid in healthy weight control and lead to greater insulin sensitivity. A high insulin sensitivity enables the cells of the body to use blood glucose more effectively, reducing blood sugar.
Previous treatment study about binge eating frequency by the Rutgers University researchers also states that regular eating is associated with lower weekly binge frequency. There are also wider benefits, such as eating and sleep are closely consistent. The key to being healthy in both is consistency. This means regular eating and sticking to a regular sleep pattern and vice versa.
Social meals make the meal better tasing and more fun. Moreover, eating with family and friends bind them but also help them to eat healthier meals together. Jenkins believes that returning to a life where food forge connections with others will help those eating disorder overcome the psychological risk brought by the lockdown. For those unable to go out, they can consider an online meeting.
When things didn’t go as planned, effective and positive ways of dealing with stress can also help people reset their relationship with their bodies. Common strategies include arts and crafts, gardening, exercise, mindfulness, and other hobbies. Watching TV is also advised but not too much. The solution is to find things that work best for you to handle stress.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) shares that at least 30 million US people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Also, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate compared to other mental illnesses. One in 5 anorexia deaths is by suicide. Some 1.5% of American women suffer from bulimia nervosa in their lifetime and 2.8 American adults suffer from binge eating disorder (BED).
Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, shares that in 2017, the country with the highest share of the population with an eating disorder is in Australia (0.94%), Italy (0.63%), Spain (0.73%), Canada (0.48%), United States (0.51%), and Sweden (0.57%), among others.
Since people who have eating disorders often experience other issues, such as anxiety, even before the pandemic, the uncertainty of Covid-19 can trigger their anxiety. Such fear can, in turn, trigger their eating disorder so they can feel in control of their environment and health. All the more reason they need to reach out to a healthcare provider. The changes in food intake, limited exercise, and isolation can take a toll on these people the reason why they also need to manage their unreasonable expectations.