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COVID-19 uncertainty, isolation drive eating disorders

There’s no denying the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the world. Not only has there been death, job losses and failed businesses, but there has also been an overwhelming sense of emotional trauma and uncertainty. 

Quarantine and self-isolation has put a lot of people in a place where they’re surrounded by food, with little to nothing else to do other than eat. As a result, it becomes an easy and potentially unhealthy coping mechanism. Eating disorders do not discriminate, and they have shown no mercy during COVID-19. 

“The global pandemic we are currently experiencing has also created an increase in eating disordered behavior and has been especially challenging for people with eating disorders,” Eileen Marsal Koch, a staff counselor at Ohio University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CPS, said in an email. “The National Eating Disorders Association reported a 70% increase in those reaching out to their helplines compared to 2019.” 

There are three primary eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating. 

“Eating disorders are serious and complex illnesses that stem from a variety of biological, psychological, social and environmental factors. No two eating disorders are the same, so not every person will exhibit the same behaviors or have the same etiology,” Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA, said in an email. 

Click here for the full list of warning signs by the NEDA. 

The pandemic is a new territory where people frequently feel like they have no control over what’s happening. 

“Underlying most eating disordered behavior is a desire for control,” Marsal Koch said in an email. “Individuals who feel that they do not have enough control over their own lives are at a greater risk of developing disordered eating because what they eat or do not eat is something they can control.”

Being at home leads to more time spent on social media. When on social media, people are inclined to compare themselves to others. People may scroll past an influencer or TikTok dancer and wish they had clear skin or a flat stomach like them. 

“Young women, especially, are exposed to media images of women with the ‘perfect bodies’ which can lead to pressure to be thin and ‘perfect’ themselves,” Marsal Koch said in an email. “Perfectionism is also a personality trait that can lead young people to develop eating disordered behavior.”

College students are already highly susceptible to developing an eating disorder. 

“College students, especially, have a tremendous amount of pressure to perform, get good grades and excel in their coursework,” Marsal Koch said in an email. “The pressure to fit in with their peers added to the academic pressure they are experiencing can be a perfect storm for creating eating disordered behavior.”  

Online classes and limited extracurriculars due to the pandemic only make the pressure worse. 

“Anyone who is struggling should be made aware that help is available and a phone call away,” Marsal Koch said in an email. “College campuses often see students who are struggling with eating disorders and can be the first line of help for students. At Ohio University, help is available.”

Being at home is the new normal. Kronengold feels the stagnant and isolated environment gives way to eating disorder triggers. 

“We know that eating disorders thrive in isolation, so connection and community is key—especially during this unprecedented time,” Kronengold said in an email. “If possible, we encourage people to establish a routine and keep themselves busy.”

Both Marsal Koch and Kronengold believe following a schedule can help maintain healthy eating patterns. They suggest creating a routine to keep individuals on track and encourage people to think about what works best for them and their body.

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, contact NEDA’s toll-free, confidential Helpline. NEDA also has a list of free or low-cost COVID-19 resources here.

Additionally, you can contact OU CPS at 740-593-1616.


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