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People with eating disorders triggered by heightened focus on food during COVID-19

During these unprecedented times, many of us are worried, not only about the coronavirus itself, but also about food and the public’s perceived need to stockpile. This incorrect assumption about the scarcity of food has resulted in shortages and empty supermarket shelves.

For some people, these shortages may be nothing more than an annoyance while for others they can be the cause of increased anxiety and stress. However, for people with eating disorders, this increased attention on food and scarcity is even more detrimental to their mental health.

Professor Phillipa Hay

Professor Phillipa Hay, an expert on eating disorders from Western Sydney University and Editor-in-chief of Journal of Eating Disorders explains that the current increased focus on food in the media, including stockpiling and the closure of restaurants and cafes, has increased the anxiety around food insecurity for sufferers of people with eating disorders.

“These people may be experiencing anxiety about obtaining food and also about having large amounts of food around when they’ve been stockpiling,” she explains.

Indeed, having less food around can may be a trigger for more restrictive eating and behaviours associated with disorders such as anorexia nervosa.

“People with eating disorders often don’t feel like they’re deserving of food. They often have a low sense of self worth and self-esteem which can be accentuated in times of crisis,” Professor Hay explains.

Similarly, having a lot of food around due to stockpiling, may trigger binge eating.

“In a state of insecurity, people with eating disorders move from control to a sense of loss of control which can trigger overeating.”

To manage food insecurity, Professor Hay recommends shopping for food, “not too often and not too much.”

“It’s important not to get drawn into the buying and panic stocking of food and to realise that there is adequate food available,” she says.

Focusing on other things instead of food is one way to manage during these times. She lists positive thinking, mindfulness, listening to music, going for walks, eating regularly with others (as much as physical distancing allows) and taking a break from social media and the news as some strategies to cope. Continuing with any existing treatment is also paramount during this time.

Professor Hay recommends going to Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders website (https://www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/covid-19/) for more specific advice for people with eating disorders.