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Covid and the eating disorder crisis
Eating disorders soared over lockdown. Now, experts are worried that the Government's obesity strategy is making the situation worse

Eating disorders have risen sharply during the Pandemic, and now Government plans to put calories on menus, in a bid to tackle obesity, are being criticised as ‘highly triggering’ by sufferers.

A new petition, to stop the Government initiative, started by Nottingham University, American Studies postgraduate student, Lily Pickard, 24, has gained over 9500 signatures in less than 48 hours.

Pickard says that she started the petition following her own battle with anorexia as she wanted to do something positive to support others with eating disorders.

“Calorie counting is a horrible practice that encourages problematic relationships with food and exercise,” says Pickard. “People with eating disorders will immediately start thinking that they need to ‘earn’ those calories and start exercising too much, or bingeing and purging, it feeds back into all those behaviours.

“I’m not saying that this information shouldn’t be made available, but there should be a choice about seeing it.”

Eating disorders were already soaring in lockdown, with record numbers of enquires to eating disorder clinics and a 70% increase in calls to the eating disorders charity Beat.

Studies show a similar pattern across the globe, with a survey of a 1000 individuals in both the Netherlands and USA, and a further Australian survey of close to 5,500 people, showing that up to two-thirds of those with a previous eating disorder had seen a deterioration in symptoms, in the Covid lockdown.

Even among the general population one-third were restricting what they ate more than normal, with a further third falling prey to comfort binges, as the Australian study showed.

“Lockdown has had an impact on all of our eating,” says Ulrike Schmidt, Professor of Eating Disorders, King’s College London and Consultant Psychiatrist at the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. “But those with pre-existing eating disorders have been especially vulnerable. We’re also seeing people who were getting better, but who are now relapsing. A lot of people have had setbacks.”

Experts have warned that isolation paired with increased anxiety and a loss of structure in daily routines, together with an increased focus on social media and workout ‘glow-ups’, are among the factors driving the crisis.

Abi Steadman, 23, who is in recovery from anorexia,
23-year-old Abi Steadman is in recovery from anorexia CREDIT: Geoff Pugh/Geoff Pugh
Abi Steadman, 23, who is in recovery from anorexia, has felt a resurgence in compulsions in the Covid pandemic.

“The thing I found difficult in the first rumblings of lockdown was the panic buying, since a lot of my ‘safe’ foods, that I eat every day and don’t make me feel guilty, weren’t available and suddenly I wasn’t fully in control of what I could eat.”

As lockdown came into full effect her anxiety levels escalated. “One of the things I found most difficult was not being able to exercise more than once a day, as I usually manage my anxiety by walking and I felt my body was going to spiral out of control.”

Steadman is studying for a Masters in creative writing at the University of Surrey, but moved back to her family home for lockdown and kept up with friends online, but soon found she was being bombarded with unhelpful ads.

“I’m very careful about the social media accounts I follow. I avoid fitness accounts and anybody who is talking about their weight loss journey,” she says. “But I was still being targeted with ads for exercise clothes and fitness equipment. I was like ‘Woah,’ it felt like I was being shouted at all the time. As if the whole world was telling me: ‘You need to be worried about your body, you need to control it. You need to exercise all the time because you’re sitting at a computer.’”

When she went out for her daily exercise the hoards of runners reinforced her insecurities and she has found the Government’s ‘war on obesity’ similarly challenging. “It feels like an attack on certain bodies. It makes me feel that I do still need to control my food and my body.”

Alex Walsh, 26, has struggled with anorexia for close to a decade and was in the throes of relapse before the lockdown came into effect. She had already been signed off work from an internship in conservation policy at Kew Gardens and was living back with her parents in Lincolnshire, when Covid hit. “Suddenly we could only go out to go to the supermarket, which is food-related, and for exercise, it was as if everything was triggering my eating disorder. And because I was signed off work I couldn’t stay busy.”

26-year-old Alex Walsh has struggled with anorexia for nearly a decade
26-year-old Alex Walsh has struggled with anorexia for nearly a decade
Alex battles with compulsive running and found all the talk of Joe Wicks workouts and the like, extremely hard to resist. “You’re getting all this messaging, not just from the media and social media, but also from the Government, it’s constantly in your head. You feel like you are going against everything and everyone (by giving up exercise).

“It’s really hard to persevere. I’m having to eat regular meals but then a thought creeps in: ‘Oh just do a bit of exercise so you don’t gain too much weight.’ I’d been doing yoga once a week and then I’d think, ‘maybe I should do this every day,” you have to catch those subtle things.

“I’ve been reaching out to eating disorder groups and hotlines, just to be reassured that I’m doing the right thing.”

It’s estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. The average age of onset is around 16 for anorexia, 18-19 for bulimia, and around mid-twenties for binge eating disorder, but people can be affected at any age.

Last year’s figures include 4,471 admissions for eating disorders in children aged 18 and under, up eight per cent in a year.

Since eating disorders generally start in adolescence or young adulthood, and the patients themselves are usually very reluctant to seek treatment, parents are generally the first to raise the alarm. “We tell parents to trust their instincts,” says Prof Schmidt. “There’s usually an accumulation of little things, that make you think something is not quite right, that give you a sense of unease. It could be that they don’t want their favourite foods, maybe they are avoiding meals or isolating.”

If in doubt talk to your GP or call one of the helplines, like Beat. “Don’t wait,” says Prof Schmidt. “Eating disorders quickly become ingrained, usually within two or three years.” The sooner treatment is sought, the better the chances of a full recovery.

Experts are concerned that the government’s obesity strategy is making the situation worse.

“Some of these strategies are well-intentioned but when you try to send a message to people about obesity it is very complex and sensitive,” says Dr Rebecca Murphy, co-director of The Centre for Research on Eating Disorders, in Oxford. “All this talk that we’ve got to lose weight, is very unhelpful for people with eating disorders and its probably not even helpful for people with obesity either. It’s shaming them which isn’t going to help anyone lose weight.”

This sentiment is echoed by eating disorders charity Beat’s Chief Executive, Andrew Radford, in a statement:

“Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders. While we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, we shared our concerns with the Government ahead of the release of the new strategy, and are extremely disappointed that the needs of people affected by eating disorders have once again been dismissed.”

Yet the government insists action is needed: “With over 6 in 10 adults and more than 1 in 3 children aged 10-11 years overweight or obese, we do need to ensure that people are equipped with the knowledge to make decisions about their food intake. We do recognise concerns about calorie labelling and are committed to striking a careful balance between educating people whilst not negatively impacting people with eating disorders.”

Yet sufferers like Abi Steadman are finding it hard to cope, even now lockdown has eased. “Eventually I got into habits and patterns that helped me manage the anxiety of the pandemic. Now I worry about doing ‘normal’ things like going out to the shops or to a restaurant. The inclusion of calorie counts on menus is triggering for me and I’m very concerned about the proposal to make them mandatory. It’s going to be a long process of adjusting again.”

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or

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