How has the pandemic influenced the risk of developing an eating disorder and its symptoms?

The pandemic and the resulting change of our habits have remarkably influenced the possibility of developing an Eating Disorder (ED) and exacerbated the symptoms of those who previously suffered from it (Rodgers et al., 2020). It is easy to understand how “remote” working and academic activities have affected our habits, in particular, our physical activity and circadian rhythm. As a matter of fact, the anxiety derived from the pandemic situation and the interruption of our daily routine can have an impact on the quality of sleep, which is associated with the risk of developing ED. In addition, a decrease in our social and physical contact is connected to feelings of frustration and boredom, which could exacerbate the risks and symptoms linked with eating disorders (Rodgers et al., 2020).

Being forced to do physical activity, study or work and carry out leisure activities in the same room without having a clear daily routine anymore could influence the possibility of developing an Eating Disorder. Indeed, the lack of well-defined borders among the different areas of life and the absence of a defined schedule make it difficult to keep a schedule, boundaries and limits in eating habits too, making it easier to consume more snacks during the day (Rodgers et al., 2020). In addition, organizing meals constantly and being always close to food lead to the risk of developing an eating disorder in those who are at risk or are familiar with it (Heriseanu et al., 2017). The perception of food shortage and the request to cut displacements from our home, as we experienced during the first months of lockdown, can induce some people to stock up with food and buy lots of snacks. Both these behaviours make binging more likely to occur (Waters et al., 2001).

The pandemic has negatively influenced the protective factors of the disorder, i.e., those factors which can prevent or reduce it, such as social support (Leonidas & Dos Santos, 2014; Linville et al., 2012), therapeutic relationship or feeling involved in pleasant activities (Rodgers et al., 2020). Social networks and media have an impact on eating disorders, as people are exposed to contents related to the beauty ideal of our culture, that is being skinny (Boswell & Kober, 2016; Levine & Murner, 2009; Rodgers & Melioli, 2016). The pandemic has intensified this issue, as people have spent more time on social media due to restrictions. Moreover, the spread of “pandemic recipes”, which also media have talked about, may have caused even higher pressure on this topic, increasing once more the risk of developing the symptoms of ED (Rodgers et al., 2020). Previous research has proved that intense media exposure to traumatic and stressful worldwide events is associated with an increase in eating disorders (Rodgers et al., 2012). In the end, the increase in using videoconferences could have indirectly influenced the possibility of developing an Eating Disorder: being always visible during meetings and being able to see our face could have caused an effect similar to that of looking at ourselves in the mirror. Individuals might have paid more attention to their appeal and look, with consequences on the body image perceived by other people (Mills et al., 2018).

Finally, the stress caused by the pandemic could have led to more emotional eating, which is usually characterized by food rich in carbohydrates as a staple diet: the consumption of these foods is linked to an eating habit called “binge eating” in those who suffer from ED (Klatzkin et al., 2018).

Author of the article: Marta Matuella

Translation: Arianna Corbetta

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