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How the pandemic has fuelled a rise in eating disorders

Throughout the pandemic, many of us have turned to Google for our health worries or questions. We found that parents turned to Google for their concerns, especially eating disorder support. There has been a rise in searches on Google for eating disorder awareness, affecting children, teenagers and young people.

So we asked Bupa mental health advisers Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton their expert advice. On this page, they tell us the warning signs of an eating disorder and offer guidance for recovery and self-care. They also provide advice on how to talk to children about eating disorders.

You may have seen the impact of COVID-19 on your own family’s mental health, with heightened anxiety, stress, and worry. These are difficult times for everyone, but teenagers and children are particularly vulnerable because they’re still acquiring the coping skills and life experience they need to build resilience. Here’s what our own survey about teenage reactions to the pandemic revealed:

Teenagers have turned to harmful coping mechanisms to manage their mental health during the pandemic, including controlling or restricting their food intake.

Types of eating disorders

While it’s normal to change your eating habits every now and again, it can become a problem if food and eating feel like they’re taking over: that’s when a disorder can develop.

Eating disorders are complex conditions that cause people to develop severely disrupted eating habits. For parents, it’s important to be aware of the different types of eating disorder because they’re most common in teenagers aged 13 to 17. There are lots of different eating disorders, each with unique symptoms. Some of the more common disorders are listed below.

  • Anorexia

  • Binge eating disorder

  • Bulimia

  • Orthorexia

  • Body dysmorphic disorder


Anorexia

A person who has anorexia nervosa will try to control their weight by not eating enough food and/or exercising excessively. Often, they have a distorted image of themselves, believing they are overweight when in fact they may be severely underweight.

Anorexia is a serious and complex mental health condition which requires expert professional help. It is the least common eating disorder, even though it may be one of the most widely recognised. Anorexia is most common in teenage girls and young women, and females are about four times more likely to be affected than males.


Binge eating disorder

Binge-eating is a common, serious but treatable eating disorder which can affect males and females, and usually starts in the late teens or early 20s. It involves recurring sessions of eating very large quantities of food, very rapidly.

Those who binge-eat may secretly hoard food, plan their sessions, and try to hide how much they’re eating. Unlike with bulimia, they don’t force themselves to be sick afterwards. During a binge they may feel distressed and out of control, while afterwards they may feel shame.


Bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is a serious mental health condition. It can be hard to spot because a person with bulimia may have a normal body weight, so the signs may be more around behaviour. Bulimia can affect anyone, male or female, but is most common in ages 13 to 17.

Bulimia shares similarities with some other eating disorders. As with anorexia, those with bulimia try to control their weight, may exercise excessively, and may have a distorted body image but bulimia means eating a lot, rather than very little. And like binge-eating, those with bulimia tend to eat a lot in a short time, usually secretively, although someone with bulimia will force themselves to be sick afterwards or may over-use laxatives.


Orthorexia

Orthorexia is a newly identified disorder in which the person develops an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, or pure eating’. So unlike with anorexia or bulimia, for example, orthorexia is about the quality of the food, rather than the quantity.

Someone with orthorexia may be obsessive about researching foods or reading the ingredients in food. They may eliminate entire food groups and have a very restricted diet, which can lead to malnutrition. Orthorexia can interfere with daily life and cause anxiety in social settings that involve food.


Body dysmorphic disorder

A person with body dysmorphic disorder becomes so concerned about flaws in their appearance, however minimal or imaginary, that they feel real distress. It can have a significant impact on their daily life, and they may avoid going out or social occasions.

Body dysmorphic disorder can affect both males and females. Because it’s most common in teenagers and young adults, it can be difficult to spot. After all, this is an age when physical appearance can be especially important anyway. Warning signs could include obsessive behaviour around mirrors, grooming, or continually researching cosmetic procedures. It may involve constantly seeking reassurance about an aspect of appearance.

Many more people are searching for help with eating disorders

We compared how many people are using Google to look for support with eating disorders in April 2021, compared with April 2020.

Why has there been an increase in eating disorders during COVID 19?

Our research shows a significant increase in Google searches relating to eating disorders this year, compared to 2020. Here are some of the reasons why food, and eating difficulties, have become more of an issue for children and young people during COVID-19.

Eating disorder awareness: warning signs to watch out for

Whether you’re concerned about yourself or someone you love, it’s important to recognise the potential signs of an eating disorder. For a parent, seeing your child struggle with eating problems or disorders can be very upsetting.

How to talk to your children about eating disorders

Eating disorder recovery

With the right eating disorder support and guidance, it’s possible to regain health and wellbeing.

Find the right treatment

It’s crucial to find the treatment that works best for you, as it can help you develop healthy, balanced eating patterns in the long term.

An important part of finding suitable treatment is first speaking to your doctor. They may be able to refer you to specialist eating disorder support for both your child and your family.

There are specialist charities that can help. You can find details for Beat, the UK's eating disorder charity, at the bottom of this page. Young Minds, the mental health charity, also has lots of content around anorexia and other eating disorders.

Encourage a healthy relationship with food

Even though food itself isn’t the problem with an eating disorder, developing a healthier relationship with food is an important step to recovery. Here are our tips for reducing mealtime anxiety for everyone:

  • Prepare for meals by letting the family know when food will be served.
  • When you’re eating a meal, divert attention by talking about the events of the day, or what’s been on TV.
  • Reduce added pressure on your child by taking greater control of their food; for example, by offering less choice.
  • Distracting your child after eating could reduce the urge for excessive exercise or purging (vomiting or using laxatives). So plan to do something afterwards, like watching a moving, playing a board game or going out.

Watch out for triggers

It’s important that your child learns how to cope and manage any triggers that arise in their everyday life. As part of their support network, be mindful that topics around food, body image and dieting may naturally come up in conversation. Where you can, avoid talking about these topics at mealtimes.

It’s critical that your child finds a coping strategy to ease any discomfort. For example, if you can identify the events, people and situations that trigger negative emotions, you can help to avoid that trigger or prepare a way to handle it in future.

How Bupa can support you with eating disorders

Helpful external resources

Beat is the UK's eating disorder charity. If you’re concerned that someone you love might be suffering from an eating disorder, you can contact them online or by phone, 365 days a year. They also run support groups.

Eating disorder support and information from Bupa's experts

^ Lines are open 8am - 8pm Monday to Friday, 8am-4pm Saturdays. We may record or monitor our calls.

Teens Minds: Living Through a Pandemic and Beyond
Bupa-commissioned report by PCP Research, surveying 1,000 UK teenagers aged 13-19, and 1,000 of their parents, between 22 October and 3 November 2020.

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence)
https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/eating-disorders/background-information/prevalence

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