Lockdowns during COVID pandemic linked to rise in eating disorders

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — All the time spent locked inside over the last year helped keep the public safe from COVID-19. However, those lockdowns may have also sparked an uptick in eating disorders. Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University say recent lockdown measures appear to be contributing to an increase in eating disorder-related symptoms.

In the summer of 2020, study authors analyzed the behaviors and attitudes of 319 local health club members with an average age of 37. Each volunteer filled out an “eating attitudes” test. That assessment asked subjects to indicate how strongly they agreed with statements like “I am terrified about being overweight,” “I have the impulse to vomit after meals,” and “I feel extremely guilty after eating.”

In comparison to similar research conducted in 2019, the average scores for the 2020 eating attitudes test were much higher. Researchers say this suggests higher levels of unhealthy conditions like bulimia and anorexia.

“We can’t say for certain that COVID-19 is responsible for this increase in behavior associated with eating disorders. However, we do know that people often use food as a coping mechanism for stress, and clearly many people have been impacted by stressful events and significant changes over the last 12 months,” says study leader and PhD researcher Mike Trott in a university release.

“If future lockdowns or periods of enforced quarantine are required, practitioners working with people with suspected eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, should monitor these behaviors closely.”

Staying in shape during lockdown

It wasn’t all bad news, though. Those surveys also revealed both a decrease in exercise addiction symptoms and an increase in individual exercise habits. Researchers discovered the average person went from 6.5 hours of exercise per week in 2019 to 7.5 hours in 2020.

“Encouragingly, we also found that symptoms of exercise addiction fell following the first lockdown, but average exercise rates increased by an hour a week compared to 2019. It could be that the participants in our study were eager to restart their exercise routines post-lockdown and make up for time lost by exercising more. Regardless of motives, there are many physical and mental health benefits to regular exercise, so this is a positive finding,” Trott concludes.

The study is published in Psychiatry Research.

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