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Pandemic Stress Is Contributing to Disordered Eating

Young woman eating dinner.

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 induced stress, changes in schedule, and financial challenges have resulted in people increasingly engaging in disordered eating.
  • In a new study, researchers found that people increasingly turned to food and eating as coping mechanisms during the pandemic.
  • There are ways to treat and manage disordered eating and an individual's relationship to food.

The psychological distress, stress, financial difficulties, and schedule changes many have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic may be leading to disordered eating.

In a new study, researchers found that stress, stress management, depressive symptoms, and extreme financial difficulties increasingly led people to eat as a form of coping during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Of the stressors, money problems seemed to be the biggest impetus to using food as a coping mechanism. The March study was published in The International Journal of Eating Disorders.

"This study highlights the role that stress, along with changes to our social situations, home life, and work-life, plays in our eating decision,” Sarah Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN, a Boston-based registered dietitian and Owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, tells Verywell. Anzlovar was not associated with the study. “The results of this study align with what I've seen with clients in my private practice over the last year. There has been a major uptick in disordered eating behaviors, whether that's using food as a way to cope with the stress and overwhelm or restricting more as a way to have a sense of control.”

What Is Disordered Eating?

When a person experiences continuous and potentially dangerous disturbances in their eating behaviors, they could be experiencing an eating disorder. 

Types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa (severe caloric restriction)
  • Bulimia nervosa (purging after eating)
  • Binge eating disorder (eating large quantities of food in a short period of time)
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (avoiding certain foods that can cause health concerns)
  • Other specified feeding and eating disorder
  • Pica (eating food that has no nutritional value, like clay)
  • Rumination disorder (bringing undigested food back up from the stomach and rechewed)

Eating disorders affect up to 5% of the population. Long-term nutritional consequences of experiencing an eating disorder include having nutritional gaps in the diet, experiencing a heart condition, and, in extreme cases, death. Psychologically, eating disorders can take a toll on a person’s well-being. 

COVID-19 Led to Increase in Eating Disorders

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in drastic changes to people’s day-to-day life, and in some cases, negatively affected their income and social connections. In turn, stress and uncertainty have run rampant. 

Because added stress and uncertainty have already been linked to disordered eating, researchers figured COVID-19 may lead some individuals to develop an eating disorder.

To explore whether this was the case, researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School and School of Public Health surveyed 720 young adults, around the age of 24, in April and May of 2020. Psychological distress, stress, stress management, financial difficulties, and food insecurity during the COVID‐19 pandemic as well as disordered eating were evaluated.

Ultimately, the researchers found six factors that led to changes in eating behavior:

  • Mindless eating and snacking
  • Increased food consumption
  • Generalized decrease in appetite or dietary intake
  • Eating to cope
  • Pandemic-related reductions in dietary intake
  • Re-emergence or marked increase in eating disorder symptoms

These factors were associated with less stress management, more depressive symptoms, and financial difficulties. Conversely, stress management helped reduce the use of eating as a form of coping.

“This study is a reminder that what and how we eat is incredibly intertwined with our mental health and life circumstances, which is why it's important to address the underlying reasons for these eating behaviors, rather than putting a band-aid on them with another diet or meal plan,” Anzolvar explains. 

How to Manage Disordered Eating

The weight and stress of the pandemic may be exacerbating any fraught relationships you may already have with food and eating. Or it could potentially lead to the development of an eating disorder.

If you or someone you love is experiencing an eating disorder as a result of the pandemic, experts share some ways to tackle this challenge.

Show Yourself Grace

Anzolvar says that “it's important to recognize that the last year (or more) has been extremely challenging for everyone and it's brought on a unique set of circumstances from social isolation, financial difficulties, food insecurity, anxiety over health, increased demands in home life, and more.” Therefore, she advises that you show yourself some grace if stress impacted your eating habits this past year. 

Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, LDN, a Boston-based weight loss dietitian at Lainey Younkin Nutrition, tells Verywell that “restricting food leads to overeating, so don’t label any food as off-limits.” She advises setting up an environment for success by not stocking your freezer with ice cream or loading up your pantry with unhealthy chips.  However, she does add that “if you do decide to eat an entire pint of ice cream, you aren’t a bad person. Reflect on it, decide if it made you feel better, and move on, deciding how you’ll cope next time you’re upset.”

Manage Stress and Sleep

If stress is the major driver to restriction, binging, or mindless eating, “learning other coping mechanisms to manage stress is incredibly helpful," Anzolar says. Some examples she shares include gentle movements like a walk for some fresh air, meditation, or journaling. 

Younkin also adds that sleep should be a priority. “Lack of sleep leads to a rise in ghrelin, the hormone that tells you you’re hungry," Younkin says. "Plus, no one wants to work out when they are tired. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night and set up systems to help you get it like charging your phone outside your bedroom and not looking at screens the 1-2 hours before bed.”

Seek Help

Anzolvar cautions that “if depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns are the driver of a disordered eating behavior, working with a licensed therapist is often the best route to overcome these challenges.” She also adds that seeking out help from a registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating may be helpful to rebuild a healthy relationship with food.

"If you know someone who is struggling financially, bring them a meal or help them get connected to a food assistance program in your area," she adds. "We often forget that financial insecurity and food insecurity can be a big driver of disordered eating behaviors—both undereating and binge eating.”

If you're struggling with eating during the pandemic, being proactive with your health and reaching out for help may be one of the best things you can do for physical and mental health. 

What This Means For You

If you or your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, you can seek help and support from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline—call or text (800) 931-2237. There are also additional resources on the NEDA website including free and low-cost support.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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