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Experts say eating disorders have spiked during COVID-19 pandemic

Last Updated Apr 18, 2021 at 9:37 am MDT

MONTREAL (CityNews) — Working and studying from home because of the pandemic, Ffion Hughes spends a lot of time at her make-shift desk — the kitchen table — near the fridge and pantry, and close to her workout space.

For some, it’s the dream work environment. For anyone who is recovering from anorexia nervosa, like Hughes, those nearby triggers can be extremely problematic.

Experts say several pandemic-related reasons — stress, isolation, the fear of infection — are driving a spike in eating disorders.

“One really major facet of the pandemic that was really difficult for a lot of people and particularly for someone who’s experiencing an eating disorder: there’s a huge disruption in routine,” said Hughes, a McGill University history student and Rhodes scholar elect.

“And when you’re alone, eating disorders really thrive in isolation and so the anorexia sort of pops up as the constant companion. And that was especially difficult at the beginning of the pandemic because everyone was talking about their online workouts and they couldn’t stand watching TV all day, so what that translated into for me was a lot more exercise than I should have been doing.”

According to experts, some people have even developed the disease in the past year in part because of that trauma, stress and isolation.

“It’s an increase of 131 per cent of our services so we had to adapt,” said Josee Lavigne, a prevention and education coordinator at Anorexia and Bulimia Québec (ANEB). “All our services are extended for the online services.”

Eating disorders are more widely thought to be a disease that is triggered by a strong obsession with body weight and an unhealthy relationship with food.

But professionals say eating disorders are much more complex than we think. A lot of it is about control.

“Depending on what kind of eating disorder the person has, you might see physical changes and you might not see them,” said Lavigne. “So it’s more the psychological aspect that we’re interested in. You will see the difference in the person. Someone will be lethargic, there might be a little bit of depression connected to the eating disorder.”

The organization ANEB says it responded to 1,279 online requests for help between July 2020 and February 2021. That’s up from 285 requests for help over the same period the year before.

“Eating disorders can happen any time,” said Lavigne. “So yes, we see more commonly that young people will develop an eating disorder but it can even be someone who is in their 50s or 70s and can develop an eating disorder. So it doesn’t discriminate.”