COVID-19: A Dangerous Time for Eating Disorders

By Katie Wilkins

The societal landscape created by COVID-19 is one primed for fostering mental illness; chronically high levels of stress, fear, and social isolation set the foundation for disorders such as depression, anxiety, and many others. [1] It is predicted that the mental health consequences of the pandemic will persist long after the virus itself is under control. [1]

One specific mental illness is expected to thrive in the conditions set by COVID-19, both through new diagnoses and relapses of recovered individuals. Eating disorders impact 1 in 12 Canadians and are known to have the highest death rate of any mental illness. [2] Experts describe COVID-19 as “the perfect storm” for eating disorder development, as this illness is based in lack of control and isolation, both of which are currently in abundance. [2,3,4] COVID-19 has created a high stress environment, in which uncertainty has become the new norm. Individuals no longer have control over many aspects of their lives, leading to a natural desire to maintain control wherever possible, for example through food, exercise and weight monitoring behaviours. [2,4] This is further compounded by the abundance of media attention on using quarantine as an opportunity to work on self-improvement [2,3] The term “quarantine 15” has been widely used to describe the undesirable weight gain that may accompany being stuck at home, and healthy eating and home workouts have been highlighted as ways in which we should be using the lockdown to work on ourselves. [2,3] While this has the potential to manifest in positive lifestyle changes in some, in many others it can and will lead to an unhealthy fixation on exercise regimens, food consumption, and weight tracking. [2]

Social isolation is another aspect of quarantine that puts individuals at risk for the development of and relapse into eating disorder behaviours. [2] Social distancing measures can have the effect of separating individuals from the support systems that would normally function to hold them accountable to their recovery and help them manage their stress productively. [2]

COVID-19 has brought about a change in the relationship society has with food in general. Disruptions to grocery shopping routines encourage individuals to buy food less frequently, and the pressure to stockpile food promotes the purchasing of foods that will last longer but tend to be less healthy. [5] Many grocery stores are experiencing shortages of some food items, which can make grocery shopping even more stressful for individuals who already have a tenuous relationship with food. [5,6] Additionally, this pandemic has created an increased financial burden on much of the population, which further impairs individuals’ abilities to feed themselves properly, and justifies decreasing food consumption in order to save money. [6]

Along with the increased prevalence of factors that contribute to eating disorder development, COVID-19 has made eating disorder resources more difficult to access. [5] Some aspects of treatment can be accomplished online through video and phone conversations, but important physical components of these mental illnesses, such as weight and blood pressure, are much harder to monitor remotely. [5]

It would be a devastating mistake to dismiss the mental health implications of COVID-19. Attention to mental health will be a crucial aspect of our recovery as a society from this pandemic.

  1. Collie M. 11 million Canadians could experience ‘high levels of stress’ due to COVID-19: Health Canada. Global News [Internet]. 2020 May 21. Available from: https://globalnews.ca/news/6906456/coronavirus-stress-mental-health-canada/
  2. Hartai K. Eating disorder support group calls COVID-19 a ‘perfect storm’ for those struggling. Halifax Today [Internet]. 2020 April 1. Available from: https://www.halifaxtoday.ca/local-news/eating-disorder-support-group-calls-covid-19-a-perfect-storm-for-those-struggling-2215785
  3. D’entremont Y. Eating disorders worsen with COVID-19. Halifax Examiner [Internet]. 2020 April 9. Available from: https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/featured/eating-disorders-worsen-with-covid-19/
  4. Hensley L. Why the coronavirus pandemic is triggering those with eating disorders. Global News [Internet]. 2020 March 28. Available from https://globalnews.ca/news/6735525/eating-disorder-coronavirus/
  5. Huff C. For people with anorexia, COVID-19 presents new challenges. American Psychological Association [Internet]. 2020 April 14. Available from: https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/eating-disorders
  6. Touyz S, Lacey H & Hay P. Eating disorders in the time of COVID-19. Journal of Eating Disorders [Internet]. 2020 April 20. Available from: https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-020-00295-3

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