The hidden surge of eating disorders during the pandemic

Op-eds Opinions

COVID-19, diet culture, and social media contribute to disordered eating

This story contains discussion of eating disorders.

Photo via Pixabay.

In March 2020, during the start of quarantine, diet culture encouraged many to kickstart their thin-ideal body transformations.

As a high-performance athlete, the start of the pandemic drastically disrupted my weekly routine. I was working out significantly less and was missing out on social interactions. Diet culture was thriving during the first few months of quarantine, encouraging people to embark on a journey of self-confidence and self-improvement. It took little convincing to get me on board.

I quickly adopted the harmful messages dominating social media and began to work on altering my body appearance. Although I started with daily workouts found on an ever-growing YouTube list, my journey towards self-confidence quickly gained a detrimental addition: a diet.

My Instagram feed soon became flooded with intermittent fasting tips, keto-friendly food recipes, and workouts tailored for weight-loss. Simply put, wherever I travelled on social media, diet culture was sure to follow and promote or enhance eating disorder behaviours. 

As we’ve all experienced over the past two years, the increase in COVID-19 infections brings along with it heavily imposed restrictions. These restrictions create disruptions in our daily routines involving work or school, social interactions, and physical activity. As limitations fall into place, it can become difficult to maintain a separation between work and home life, and a consistent schedule around eating, exercising, and sleeping. These disturbances have been linked to increased eating disorder behaviours in individuals across the globe.

A recent JAMA Network Open study found a growth in eating disorders within Canadian youth aged nine to 18. From Jan. 1, 2015 to Nov. 30, 2020, youth clinically diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or atypical anorexia nervosa rose from 24.5 per cent to 40.6 per cent. A Globe and Mail article stated that Ontario’s five pediatric hospitals were 223 per cent over capacity in June 2021.

A Child Mind Institute article exploring the connection between university students and eating disorders found that many students struggle with an overwhelming workload and less daily structure. This anxiety-ridden environment can cause students to compensate for their lack of control. How might they do so? Through food restriction, over-exercising, and body-image obsession. 

With the increased time spent at home during the pandemic, I and many others have spent more time scrolling. Although social media provides creative ways of connection and communication, it can also enhance negative feelings and mental illnesses. A study released in March 2021 by Canada Statistics reported that up to 14 per cent of Canadian social media users aged 15 to 64 experienced feelings of anxiety, depression, frustration, anger, or envy towards the lives of others. 

Diet culture plagues these social media outlets. Calorie-counting, 30-day challenges, body comparisons, and food advertising promoted over media platforms can contribute to the development of eating disorders in young adults.

Diet culture polices people into a never-ending, unachievable, and unrewarding body-transformation journey. This toxic culture is so successful that over 20 per cent of Canadians diet while Americans spend over 33 billion dollars each year on weight-loss practices. Well, is it worth it? The answer is likely no. The fact is that many people who adopt dieting practices leave themselves vulnerable to unhealthy eating and exercise habits that are detrimental in the long term.  

One of the reasons so many of us diet is because our social media feeds condition us into believing our bodies are in need of desperate change. Diet culture, found in aspects of media, is an inescapable trap. It is not surprising to me that a 2021 CBC article stated that waitlists for eating disorder clinics in Manitoba are between 18 months and two years. The waitlist for my program in the Fraser Health region was over a year.

I luckily had a strong support network and access to external medical services such as a family doctor, an eating disorder counsellor, and a registered dietitian. I recovered before being admitted into the program. 

I understand that I come from a place of privilege. A study by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information has reported that transgender and non-binary folk are at higher risk for mental illnesses and body image issues. In addition, the U.S. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) stated that Black teenagers are 50 per cent more likely to binge or purge than their white counterparts. NEDA also shared that people of colour who disclosed their eating or weight concerns with health professionals were less likely to be asked about eating disorder symptoms. 

If you are suffering from an eating disorder or you notice yourself restricting or over-exercising, mental health services on UVic’s campus are available to you. UVic has an eating disorder clinic with counsellors, dieticians, and a psychiatrist to support you through your journey of recovery. The clinic is located in the Health and Wellness Building.

Overcoming an eating disorder is not an easy feat but it is a journey worth embarking on. For anyone, whether suffering from an eating disorder or not, who is seeking a rewarding lifestyle change, this is your sign to get up and take action. Actively defying diet culture may feel daunting, frustrating, and worthless but the self-acceptance, freedom, and love you will gain will be more rewarding than you can ever imagine. 

To all my friends out there suffering from an eating disorder, I leave you with this: you are not alone. And if you can battle a global pandemic while overcoming a mental illness, you can do just about anything.