Disordered Eating
Food, glorious food? Disordered eating in the pandemic 

Food, glorious food? Disordered eating in the pandemic

Conversations about food have marked the different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic and dominated social media platform message boards for much of this time, from panic-inducing images of empty supermarket aisles prior to lockdown, to the uptake of baking and BBQs during recent months, through to the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out Scheme and suggested plans within the so-called ‘war on obesity’ that include weighing children on their return to class in September and having calorie counts on food labels. 

Much of the focus has been on overeating and whilst there are genuine issues that need addressing, we should all be mindful of the challenges faced by people with established eating disorders and other difficult relationships with food that are more commonly associated with significant weight loss, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. 

These conditions are characterised by a fear of being overweight, the elimination of certain foods from the diet, overeating, body image concerns and a variety of methods of trying to control one’s weight, such as excessive exercise. 

The eating disorders charity Beat has seen demand for their service increase by 80% between February and July of this year. Research from the University of Northumbria has identified a number of key themes emerging for people with eating disorders during the pandemic. These include:

  • Either living alone, which can worsen isolation for somebody already struggling with food, or having to spend significant periods of time with family or friends under the same roof, which necessitates a change in food routines and may give rise to uncomfortable conversations about food choices and habits around the dinner table
  • Anxiety provoked by the hoarding of grocery items within households, which can result in more foods the normal being visible in the house, causing additional distress
  • A lack of access to regular foods and related anxiety about having to travel to supermarkets to buy particular foods
  • Public health messages that focus on weight loss (as protective against coronavirus), which can lower the self-esteem of people who are already at a low weight
  • A general loss of routine and control over mealtimes and food preparation
  • The loss of personal and professional support networks

In addition, Zoom calls with friends and professionals could be difficult for people who have existing concerns about their body image and do not want to have to see their face on a screen for a prolonged period of time. People with eating disorders may also feel that they are less worthy than other people who are facing challenges at this time and in need of assistance.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
(Matthew 6:25)

In trying to support those within our communities in this area, we should be sensitive to the range of challenges some people face and be mindful of the language we use when talking about food and weight.  Words of encouragement, validation and affirmation are welcome, as are a few simple bits of practical advice:

  • Advising the person troubled by their relationship with food to keep a food/mood diary. This might help them to see a pattern of when they are triggered to restrict or binge
  • Helping them to devise a meal plan - identifying meals that cover the major food groups without getting fixated on the calorie count - and daily structure
  • Directing them towards professional support services, including their GP, local eating disorder service and the charity Beat: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services/helplines
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, 24/08/2020
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