• Leah Hess

Disordered Eating: A Lesser-Known Side Effect of COVID-19

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Eating disorders are a class of mental illness characterized by persistent and distressing disruptions in eating behaviors. Some common examples include anorexia nervosa (characterized by severely limiting food intake), bulimia nervosa (binging and purging), and binge eating disorder (characterized by episodes involving loss of control leading to the consumption of large amounts of food). Risk factors for developing an eating disorder include social pressure to be thin, prolonged periods of high stress, and increased health concerns. The lack of routine, lack of social support, increase in social media use, and stress attached to the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified these factors.

One of the first side effects of the pandemic for many was the necessary shift to at-home, online school and work environments. Others may have lost their jobs or made the choice to take time off of school. Complete lifestyle shifts happened almost overnight and many found it difficult to adjust to their new routines. According to a study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the absence of normal time and space markers, such as planned mealtimes, designation between home and work areas, and ability to shop for food on a regular basis, can lead to increased snacking, food hoarding, and overall focus on food.

Additionally, the widespread shift in focus to public health has led to efforts to increase one’s individual immunity, whether it be through COVID “home remedies” or improvement in overall health to combat the possibility of severe COVID symptoms. Paradoxically, these attempts may actually undermine immunity attempts, as both overweight and severely malnourished patients (two possible consequences of disordered eating) have an increased risk of developing complications from the virus according to research published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Similarly, many have used the pandemic as an opportunity for self improvement, utilizing increased time at home to focus on their health and weight goals. For many this might be beneficial, but as with anything, it can easily go too far. What may start as an innocent attempt to improve one’s diet or physical activity level can eventuate in the characterization of certain foods or activities as “good” or “bad,” creating a mindset that allows little room for flexibility. Flexibility, however, is essential for eating disorder prevention and recovery, claims the American Dietetic Association, who conducted a study linking lack of variety in food choice to increased risk of disordered eating.

A key factor of preventing and managing disordered eating habits is having a social support network to buffer negative thoughts, but this support has dwindled for many by social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Previously, backing from one’s friends and family may have been enough to mitigate unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Now, people are spending more time alone and using coping mechanisms such as over eating, food restriction, or purging to deal with emotional hardships or negative thoughts.

Individuals may also turn to social media for distraction. Social media platforms have long been a contributor to eating disorders, especially in young women. As many are stuck at home with little to do, the general population’s reliance on social media for entertainment and social interaction has only grown. For example, many kids, teens, and young adults have popularized the video sharing platform TikTok during quarantine, with over 2 million app downloads within the first week of lockdown according to Sensor Tower analytics. With this has come an influx of diet-related content, including workout routines, “What I Eat in a Day” videos, and other weight loss related and appearance-focused content. The primary user base of the app is teens and young adults, which is the same age group that is at the largest risk for developing eating disorders. With almost constant reminders about health and appearance from friends, celebrities, and strangers online, the perceived importance of weight management may grow for impressionable youth.

The Center for Discovery, an eating disorder treatment center, encourages those dealing with disordered eating thoughts or behaviors to establish structure, including maintaining regular sleeping patterns and mealtimes, allocating time to hobbies, connecting virtually with friends and family, and limiting social media use.

Speaking Plainly:

- The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted routines, contributing to situations that may elevate the risk of developing disordered eating patterns.

- Health anxiety, social media use, lack of social interaction, and heightened school/work stress also pose a challenge for those dealing with unhealthy food relationships.

- Buffering strategies include allocating time for meaningful hobbies and social interactions, maintaining flexibility in food choice, and establishing eating and sleeping routines.

- If you, or someone you know, is dealing with mental health concerns or disordered eating, consider utilizing resources such as the National Eating Disorder Associations helpline or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline for support.