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Sunday Article 06: How Did COVID-19 Exacerbate Eating Disorder?

The covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult for people to cope – the risk of getting sick, losing your job, affecting your grades and the uncertainty of it all naturally makes everyone anxious. The isolation has made it a struggle for people to look for support from others, making it harder to cope with illnesses such as an eating disorder.


WHAT IS AN EATING DISORDER? In the broadest terms, it is a form of mental illness where one has an unhealthy relationship with food. As a result, they tend to develop extreme habits that are detrimental to their health and can take over their life. Eating disorder is an umbrella term - there are many different types of behaviours that constitute an eating disorder [1,2].

Anorexia nervosa aka anorexia is when someone is obsessed with losing weight, making themselves eat too little and/or exercise too much. While they might not seem like it, they often feel fat even though physically, they are not. It’s important to acknowledge that not only skinny or thin people suffer from anorexia. Without help, they can become really weak, and if not treated, anorexia can be fatal [1,2]. Someone who suffers from bulimia tend to go on a binging spree, where they would eat a lot of food in a short amount of time, then make themselves throw up, do too much exercise or use laxatives to stop themselves from gaining weight.

Binge eating and vomiting can have serious effects on the heart, kidneys, teeth and muscles, so it should not be taken lightly [1,2].​ Binge eating disorder is quite similar to bulimia – they tend to lose control of their eating and eat too much, even when they aren’t hungry. However, unlike bulimia, they don’t make themselves sick after [1,2].​

Unfortunately, eating disorders don’t always fall under these three categories. Some people may have symptoms that don’t match all of what’s listed above. It’s important to know that this doesn’t mean it’s less serious. The unspecified symptoms of an eating disorder are known as ‘other specified feeding or eating disorder’ or OSFED, for short [1,2].

During the quarantine period in 2020, The National Eating Disorders Association has reported an increase in hotline calls up to 70-80% [3]. In the UK, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has warned parents to look for signs of an eating disorder in children, due to the sharp rise of eating disorders that increased by three or four-fold [4].



Multiple triggers make it harder for people with ED to cope, such as resorting to unhealthy eating habits as a means to have a sense of control. However, recently there has been a rise in certain triggers that are more specific to the pandemic. ​ For example, being unable to go out and carry out normal activities has put a strain on normal eating schedules. As we all have experienced, the passage of time becomes unclear when we are confined at home for a while – it makes it harder to draw the line between work, eating schedules and your own free time. This can enforce ED habits (e.g. excessive snacking) especially ED survivors who rely on a structured plan for mealtimes [5]. Moreover, with limited activities allowed and with people hoarding the shelves in supermarkets, it pressures people to buy more food which can exacerbate binge eating [5]. More time spent at home also means more time spent on social media. Social media can be vile; those who spend a lot of their time on TikTok and Instagram are well aware of posts promoting diet and weight-loss culture. While some of these seem to ‘promote’ healthy habits, many do not realise these habits can snowball into an eating disorder (e.g., intermittent fasting). People are starting to recognise these potential harmful habits, but many are still influenced by it.

Last but not least, the fear of contaminated food can worsen ED tendencies. Understandably people are afraid of contracting COVID-19, which may lead to fears of the virus being present in food. This may affect ED sufferers, especially those with orthorexia nervosa (obsessed with eating healthy rather than losing weight) [5]. They may start avoiding certain foods and may affect their health in the long run [5]. WHERE TO GET HELP If you or anyone you know might have an eating disorder, there are various ways you can get help.

UK Anorexia and Bulimia Care – provide care, practical guidance and emotional support for anyone affected by ED Phone: 03000 11 12 13

Beat – Information and support for anyone affected by ED Phone (18+): 0808 801 0677; (under 25): 0808 801 0711: Students 0808 801 0811

Eating Disorders Association NI – offer services to increase awareness, support and understanding for those with ED Phone: 028 9023 5959

NHS – provide support and advice for issues related to ED Malaysia Befrienders – not specific to ED, however, offer helplines for emotional support


REFERENCES: 1.Eating disorders. (2021). Retrieved 23 January 2021, from 2.(2021). Retrieved 23 January 2021, from 3.NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. (2021). Retrieved 23 January 2021, from 4.Parents warned of 'sharp rise' in eating disorders. (2021). Retrieved 23 January 2021, from 5.Rodgers, R., Lombardo, C., Cerolini, S., Franko, D., Omori, M., & Fuller‐Tyszkiewicz, M. et al. (2020). The impact of the COVID ‐19 pandemic on eating disorder risk and symptoms. International Journal Of Eating Disorders, 53(7), 1166-1170. doi: 10.1002/eat.23318

This article is prepared by Sarah Yasmin Sharuddin.


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