‘An attempt to gain control’: Eating disorders of concern during the pandemic

While the majority of the focus during the pandemic has been on COVID-19 itself, people living with eating disorders have continued to struggle — often in the shadows. 

Mental health and eating disorder experts around the world are reporting a spike in eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours related to stress caused by the pandemic, especially in young people and adolescents.

A report released in June found that the pandemic has created a global context that is likely to increase eating disorder risk and symptoms, and decrease factors that protect against eating disorders, including access to care.  

Factors like social isolation, concerns around food security and changes in school and work structures can all affect disordered eating habits, says Jane Alway, the president of the Ontario Association of Mental Health Professionals (OAMHP) and a registered psychotherapist who treats people with eating disorders. Throw in media messaging around pandemic-related weight gain and exercise tips and you have an environment that can be incredibly triggering for someone with a history of disordered eating. 

“We’re in such a climate of uncertainty. Eating disorders or disordered eating are rarely just about food; it’s an attempt to gain control,” Alway says.

“In a pandemic where so many of us are feeling a lack of control, you can understand why symptoms would either start up or worsen.”

Eating disorders are a mental illness, and there are different types of them including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. While women and teen girls are often depicted as being the most affected by eating disorders, anyone can develop one and they can look different depending on the person. More men have been speaking out about their eating disorder experiences during the pandemic, helping shed stigma on an often taboo topic. 

Eating disorders and disordered eating habits exist on a spectrum. Even if someone does not meet the formal diagnosis criteria for an eating disorder, they could be experiencing distressing disordered eating behaviours, the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED) points out

The importance of getting help remains true for anyone struggling, Alway says. This is especially important when stress from the pandemic — whether that be loss of work, changing pressures at home or declining mental well-being — are worsening symptoms or triggering distressing eating behaviours. 

With support groups and therapy sessions limiting in-person meetings due to the pandemic, online help has never been more important. Alway uses VirtualCare to connect with patients remotely, and is one of the many mental health providers that relies on the service to continue to treat Canadians across the country.

“Help is still possible and extremely important. If somebody can connect with a practitioner virtually, then they can gain coping tools during the pandemic and beyond to allow them to manage what’s going on,” she says.

“While it’s never too late to get help, the earlier that somebody does get help, the better the chances are of recovery.”