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Understanding the Increase in Eating Disorders

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Understanding the Increase in Eating Disorders

Understanding the Increase in Eating Disorders

Recent reports from the UK have shown a significant rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders. Of particular concern is the 50% surge in cases of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake among individuals under 20, including children since the beginning of 2020 (BBC).

General Practitioners have observed a startling uptick in severe eating disorder cases requiring hospitalization. The National Health Service (NHS) has disclosed that the continuous medical admissions for treating eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia have led to a shortage of hospital beds for new patients. Community programs are struggling to keep up with the rising influx of cases, raising concerns about individuals not receiving vital intervention and therapy.

Eating disorders have emerged as a major mental health issue since the start of the pandemic, sparking questions about the growing number of individuals, including children and adolescents, experiencing severe eating disorders.

Definition of Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a mental health condition characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food, involving either restriction or preoccupation. It encompasses various types like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant Restrictive Food Disorder, and Other Specified Eating Disorder (

Eating disorders have detrimental psychological and physical effects on health, often leading to life-threatening consequences that necessitate hospitalization. Due to its mental health nature, professional treatment is essential.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

Specific symptoms vary based on the type of eating disorder, but common indicators include:

  • Eating in secret or concealing food
  • Frequent visits to the bathroom after meals
  • Engaging in compulsive behaviors such as food restriction, excessive exercise, or use of diuretics to manage weight
  • Significant weight fluctuations
  • Changes in mood like irritability
  • Distorted body image and low self-esteem

Eating Disorders and the Impact of the Pandemic

Undoubtedly, the ongoing pandemic has severely affected the mental health of people in the UK and globally. The isolation resulting from lockdowns has had profound implications on national mental health, contributing to elevated rates of anxiety and depression, especially among the youth.

Individuals grappling with eating disorders even before the pandemic witnessed exacerbation of their symptoms following the implementation of lockdowns.

Statistics on Eating Disorders during Lockdown

A study examining changes in eating behaviors amidst COVID-19 revealed that approximately 84% of adolescents admitted to restricting their food intake to regain a sense of control in their lives over the past year (Mental Health Today).

The referral rate for clinical assessment of eating disorders surged from 20% to 80% (Mental Health Today).

Factors Contributing to the Spike in Eating Disorders in the UK

Both adults and adolescents reported heightened levels of anxiety and stress during the 2020 lockdowns in the UK. The uncertainties surrounding employment, finances, and domestic challenges have fueled increased rates of mental health conditions in the general population.

Eating disorders represent one of the mental health disorders that have shown a sharp increase during the pandemic. Health experts attribute the rise in cases to heightened awareness among individuals and families regarding the risks associated with eating disorders. The normalization of discussions around eating disorders has reduced stigma, leading to a surge in referrals.

The lockdowns and the pandemic have created numerous triggers for the development of eating disorders. Isolation during lockdowns paused social activities, prompting changes in eating routines ranging from severe food restriction to binge eating.

Among teenagers and children, heightened parental control over dietary choices while at home and during lockdown resulted in unhealthy eating patterns or extreme dieting. With more young adults confined to their homes, there has been an increased focus on body image, influenced by societal pressures from the media. Isolation facilitated hiding eating habits and fluctuations in weight.

While some individuals developed unhealthy eating habits due to boredom during lockdowns, others turned to food as a coping mechanism for fears and uncertainties, whether through restriction or excessive consumption.

A Call for Early Intervention

The surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations has hindered individuals with eating disorders from accessing essential services. Long waiting times for national programs and delays in private care due to limited availability have resulted in postponed treatment.

Given the government’s increasing emphasis on mental health and the significance of early intervention in conditions like eating disorders, there is hope among families, individuals, and community services for enhanced support and therapy to reach more people, including children.  


Photo by Tamas Pap on Unsplash

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