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Topic: Rising Cases of Eating Disorders

Question: I've heard a lot about weight gain and problems with eating since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Are more people struggling with eating disorders now as a result?

Stephen Wonderlich, Ph.D. Vice-President for Research, Sanford Research
Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Expert's Response

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, national organizations are reporting almost double the amount of calls from people seeking help for eating disorder related concerns. Locally, mental health treatment facilities are seeing an increase in patients seeking help for eating disorders and are running waitlists for services. Even in the first few months of 2021, there have been a tremendous number of individuals seeking treatment for eating disorder related concerns, which is not like anything I’ve seen in over 30 years of working in this area.

While we are still learning about the current surge, evidence suggests that these are not all new cases of eating disorders, meaning that many people did not suddenly develop an eating disorder because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we are seeing a rise in eating-related problems from individuals who were already struggling with an eating disorder. So, it could be that a large number of people who have recovered from their eating disorder are having relapse problems, or that people who have struggled with a low-level eating disorder are now having a lot more trouble coping.

In terms of why people might be experiencing more eating disorder related symptoms right now - it’s important to know that the pandemic has significanlty derailed ways of effectively coping with symptoms. Many of the options that people might have relied on, such as going to the grocery store, restaurants, and the gym, have changed. Additionally, increased social isolation has challenged people’s fundamental psychological stability. We have a good deal of research suggesting that people engage in eating disorder behaviors, such as binge eating, in the evenings and on the weekends. Perhaps those were originally times characterized by increased loneliness or greater access to food. Now, as a result of the pandemic, I think those vulnerable times have been exponentially increased.