Characteristics of eating disorders

Eating disorders are a large group of difficulties related to food intake, inadequate body weight or abnormal perception of it. The best characterized disease entities in this group are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and overeating seizure disorder. A person suffering from anorexia has a distorted self-image, a strong fear of gaining weight, and takes measures to suppress weight gain (e.g., restricts food intake, induces vomiting or undertakes intense exercise). Bulimia, on the other hand, is a disorder characterized by bouts of overeating accompanied by compensatory behaviors (such as inducing vomiting or exercising excessively). In contrast, overeating seizure disorder involves repeated episodes of overeating (eating far too much food in a relatively short period of time) accompanied by a sense of loss of control.

The danger of this group of disorders is that their presence is associated with many problems that threaten not only health, but also life. People suffering from eating problems have an increased risk of co-occurrence of other mental illnesses and the manifestation of accompanying medical complications. In the group of people suffering from eating disorders, the mortality rate is also significantly increased, indicating that they are life-threatening. As for the prevalence of this type of disorder, according to a review of studies from 2000-2018, about 8% of women and 2% of men suffer from it, with eating problems in a significant proportion of them starting as early as adolescence. In addition, a recent Finnish study reports that one in six young women and one in forty young men suffer from an eating disorder. So, as you can see, such difficulties affect young women in particular, entailing a number of complications and negative health effects.

Coronavirus pandemic and eating disorders

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly affected the decline in the mental condition of young people, including the emergence or worsening of already diagnosed eating disorders. The global epidemic has affected people’s attitudes toward food in general and intensified the dissipation of emerging episodes of disordered eating, studies report. It is impossible to create circumstances more conducive to the emergence of eating problems than the pandemic. Restrictions on movement (resulting in impaired engagement in sports activities) social isolation (often leading to feelings of loneliness), increased focus on eating while constantly indoors, the emphasis on exercise and weight loss evident on social media, and the disorganization of the typical daily rhythm and limited access to professional help are just a few of the risk factors for eating disorders triggered by the imposition of the state of emergency.

In a U.S. study, researchers decided to take a closer look at the factors that have a potential impact on the disordered eating of young people during the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. On the one hand, they found that the prevalence of eating difficulties during the pandemic is not significantly different from that before the coronavirus. On the other hand, however, the study revealed the most common changes in the area of eating habits associated with the pandemic. The Covid-19 outbreak triggered the development of behaviors such as mindless eating and snacking, and increased or decreased food intake. Eating without thinking and snacking were the most common (17% of respondents) eating disorders, the survey showed. Respondents declared that increased eating was due to boredom, while snacking was due to lack of appetite for a full meal during the day. An example of snack feeding can be seen in one woman’s statement: “I snack a lot more. I don’t eat regularly like I did before the pandemic. I usually reach for a meal once a day, and then I just snack while working from home.” The second most common eating problem was found to be eating too much (10.4% of respondents). The tendency to overeat is well illustrated by a young woman’s statement: “I buy a lot of unhealthy food because I just overeat out of boredom. I don’t exercise. I’m constantly tired.” The study in question also revealed that the emergence of eating problems among the young is influenced by unmanageable stress, psychological tension, financial problems (affecting the type and amount of food purchased), and disturbances in the rhythm of the day associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. The above example shows that the current situation may be contributing to the increase in non-standard eating disorders, such as overeating, or snacking and disordered eating.

Another U.S. study showed an increase in admissions of young people to psychiatric units for eating disorder treatment during the global epidemic, compared to the pre-pandemic situation. Yet another Australian publication found an increase in admissions and hospitalizations of patients struggling with anorexia under the age of 16 during the pandemic. The results discussed here reflect the increasing, during the epidemic, need for psychological help in the area of eating problems.

Summary and recommendations

The review of foreign studies conducted here indicates the need for similar explorations on a sample of Polish adolescents. Circumstances related to coronavirus affect adolescents all over the world, causing young people to spend much more time at home (which is an unnatural state of affairs), feel more stress as a result, their daily rhythm is disrupted, they are more bored, and above all, they have limited access to real support and help in dealing with the situation in a healthy way. All these factors can lead to the development of eating disorders in adolescents, which they find difficult to cope with, and which can lead to serious health complications. In view of such a real, and in many cases, dangerous, problem, it is worth taking concrete action. A program to deal with eating disorders should begin with appropriate research. In addition, it would be worthwhile to develop new approaches to their treatment, tailored to the current reality. Moreover, parents, teachers and health experts should be educated about food, maintaining an appropriate body weight, the possibility of youngsters having a deformed body image, and in the area of symptoms signaling eating difficulties. Only aptly designed interventions can help young people, who are increasingly struggling with eating disorders due to the pandemic.

Literature cited

GALMICHE, Marie, et al. Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000-2018 period: a systematic literature review. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2019, 109.5: 1402-1413.

HARIPERSAD, Yasheer Venay, et al. Outbreak of anorexia nervosa admissions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2021, 106.3: e15-e15.

LIN, Jessica A., et al. The Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the number of adolescents/young adults seeking eating disorder-related care. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2021, 69.4: 660-663.

SILÉN, Yasmina, et al. Detection, treatment, and course of eating disorders in Finland: A population-based study of adolescent and young adult females and males. European Eating Disorders Review, 2021.

SIMONE, Melissa, et al. Disordered eating in a population-based sample of young adults during the COVID-19 outbreak. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2021.

SOLMI, Francesca; DOWNS, James L.; NICHOLLS, Dasha E. COVID-19 and eating disorders in young people. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 2021, 5.5: 316-318.