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Treatment for Eating Disorders Doubled During the Covid-19 Pandemic



An eating disorder can manifest as a trauma response. I’m treating more teenagers…teachers, doctors, nurses, and other first responders and essential personnel.

~ Whitney Trotter, registered dietitian and nurse.

Treatment for eating disorders has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But why? What’s happening to make the number of people seeking treatment for their eating disorders more than double?

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Staggering Numbers

Trotter is one of many professionals who have witnessed the uptick in treatment for eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early 2020, the number of people in treatment for eating disorders remained at the usual average. But, by late spring, the numbers had doubled. And not only were more people being treated, but they were also staying longer in treatment.

Average hospitalizations for eating disorders increased from eight or nine days to 12 days.

These findings, based on a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, were published on JAMA Network Open. Other reports have confirmed this increase.

The National Eating Disorders Association noted increases as high as 70 to 80 percent in calls to its helpline at various points between July 2020 and July 2021.

And researchers reported that “the overall incidence of eating disorders increased during the COVID-19 pandemic by 15.3 percent in 2020, compared with previous years.”

The overall incidence of eating disorders increased during the COVID-19 pandemic by 15.3 percent in 2020, compared with previous years.

Other investigators, at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, found that “medical admissions linked to eating disorders had a significant increase during the pandemic.” Admissions more than doubled their average from the previous three years.

Researchers offer several explanations for this rise in numbers.

What’s Going on?

The pandemic has provided the perfect soil to cultivate eating disorders. “They are the result of challenges to one’s emotional functioning, and the greater the emotional challenge, the more unhealthy the disordered eating patterns become,” noted Allison Chase, regional clinical director at the Eating Recovery Center.

The pandemic has caused a ton of changes and stress. It’s no surprise we’ve seen an increase in both the prevalence of treatment for eating disorders and the disorders themselves.

Eating disorders “are the result of challenges to one’s emotional functioning, and the greater the emotional challenge, the more unhealthy the disordered eating patterns become.”

Let’s take a look at some of these factors:

  • High stress: Has the pandemic added stress to people’s lives? Yes. And heightened stress can trigger disordered eating.
    This could include obsessing over weight loss or binge eating.
  • Isolation: People have been isolated from family and friends. “Isolation provides the right environment for eating disorders to thrive,” said psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “When you are alone you can eat – or not eat – in any way that you choose.”
  • Shopping trends: The pandemic changed how Americans shopped for groceries. One researcher noted, “Grocery shopping became more fraught in the early pandemic because of contagion concerns, new rules, and rituals; and many bought large quantities of foods to minimize shopping frequency or fear of shortage.”

For people prone to anorexia, these new grocery shopping trends may have contributed to further food restrictions, eating avoidance, and skipped meals.

The high stress and isolation caused by COVID-19 have contributed to the rise in treatment for eating disorders. Shopping trends could also have contributed to disordered eating patterns.

And for those prone to binge-eating? Well, it placed large quantities of canned and commercialized foods within close reach of stressed individuals.

  • Lack of control: Many people have felt little control over their present and future as a result of the pandemic. Eating disorders are often an attempt to compensate for lack of control in other parts of your life.
  • Fear of exposure: Some experts suspect the increase in inpatient stays may be due to delayed treatment for eating disorders. Due to fear of exposure to the virus, people may have avoided seeking care until symptoms worsened. By the time they sought care, they needed to be hospitalized.

People’s feelings about their lack of control over COVID-19 and their fear of exposure to the virus may have contributed to the increase in treatment for eating disorders.

On the Other Hand…

The increase in treatment for eating disorders might be a silver lining of the pandemic. Researchers from Yale and the University of Albany report that’s it’s “fairly unusual for people with eating disorders to seek help for their symptoms or concerns.” Their research indicates that only about 50 percent of eating-disordered individuals seek any form of help.

So, if more people are getting treatment for eating disorders, that’s a good change.

It’s “fairly unusual for people with eating disorders to seek help for their symptoms or concerns,” so, if more people are getting treatment for eating disorders, that’s a good change.

It’s possible that being confined in close quarters with one another offered an advantage. Family members may have become more aware of a loved one’s disordered eating patterns. They may have encouraged them to seek help.

Telehealth options, which have increased during the pandemic, may have also increased the treatment statistics.

“Patients who would not otherwise be able to access therapists, registered dietitians, psychiatrists, and other healthcare providers are now getting help for their conditions,” notes Kerry Heath, certified eating disorders specialist at Choosing Therapy.

Treatment for Eating Disorders: What’s Next

So, what should we conclude about these new numbers for treatment for eating disorders?

Chase suggests, “I am not convinced that it is a growing trend, but rather one that has existed, meaning that there has been disordered eating in our communities and often at a higher level. We’re just seeing it more now, as the shift in environment exacerbated the physical symptoms.”

For information about treatment options for you or a loved one, call 800-838-1752 (Who Answers?) today.

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