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COVID-19 and disordered eating: How the pandemic has impacted eating habits

Although not listed as a diagnosable condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), disordered eating can cause symptoms similar to an eating disorder, including restrictive or compulsive food consumption.

Moreover, anxiety, emotional distress, and changes in routine — some of the same stressors many people experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic — may trigger or intensify these symptoms.

Early in the pandemic, researchTrusted Source indicated an increase in self-reported eating disorder concerns. However, does this mean that pandemic-related stress has caused an increase in other food-related mental health concerns, such as disordered eating?

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating can be challenging to define as it encompasses a wide range of eating patterns. However, in general, people with a disordered eating pattern may eat for reasons other than hunger.

In addition, they might also change their eating patterns in response to internal or external stimuli, such as stress, boredom, or emotional dysregulation.

People with disordered eating patterns may have symptoms similar to those with an eating disorder. These symptoms may include:

  • fasting or skipping meals
  • binge eating
  • avoidance of specific food groups or types of food
  • purging or laxative misuse
  • an unhealthy preoccupation with body image or weight

However, these symptoms might not occur as frequently or with the same intensity experienced by someone with a clinically diagnosed eating disorder.

How is it different from an eating disorder?

Although disordered eating is not the same as an eating disorder, it could be considered pre-clinical eating disorder behavior, according to Dr. Jillian Lampert, the chief strategy officer of The Emily Program and Veritas Collaborative, who spoke with Medical News Today.

Dr. Lampert told MNT:

“[Disordered eating] is likely to progress to an eating disorder but [it does] not meet […] diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder yet. It may involve dieting, binge eating, purging, overexercising, [misuse of] diet pills or other supplements, laxative abuse, obsession with food and/or activity, restricting foods or food groups, among others.”

MNT also spoke with Dr. Allison Chase, the regional clinical director of the Eating Recovery Center. She noted that:

“In our current culture and with the constant influx of messaging on social media and other news venues, it can be challenging to decipher ‘normal’ eating from disordered eating. However, it is very important to recognize just how distorted and misguided nutrition information can be. Often, the promoted diet culture we see is actually more characteristic of disordered eating than healthfulness.”

Although the line between the two situations can be ambiguous, determining the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating typically involves examining three factors:

  • Behaviors: People with eating disorders may frequently engage in multiple behaviors concerning food. In contrast, people with disordered eating patterns may only engage in one behavior or experience behaviors less frequently.
  • Obsessive thoughts: Individuals experiencing an eating disorder may continuously think about food or food-related topics, including body image. Conversely, people experiencing disordered eating may not think about these concerns as often.
  • Functionality: The eating patterns of someone with an eating disorder can cause significant challenges with daily functioning, whereas people with disordered eating may not experience this to the same degree.
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