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Disordered Eating in a Disordered Time

Roughly one in 10 Americans struggle with disordered eating, and the pandemic has created new hurdles for those managing difficult relationships with food. Working from home means spending the day next to a fully stocked refrigerator. Grocery trips are less frequent, creating a pressure to load up. Social meals are out of the question. And many individuals feel an enhanced degree of uncertainty and angst, which can exacerbate existing mental health challenges.

“When the world feels out of control, people want to have control over something,” said Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis who treats patients with eating and other mental health disorders. “Often, it’s what you put in your mouth.”

In March and April, the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA, saw a 78 percent increase in people messaging its help line compared with the same period last year. Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health support by text, saw a 75 percent increase in conversations about eating disorders in the two months since March 16, to around 700 conversations from around 400 conversations weekly. A vast majority of those texters — 83 percent — were women, and more than half were under the age of 17.

“There are jokes circulating about people’s fear of weight gain during the pandemic,” said Claire Mysko, the chief executive officer of NEDA. “There are influencers putting out messages about what you should and shouldn’t be eating. On top of that we’re seeing pictures of empty grocery shelves. That can be a trigger to people with eating disorders.”

Chelsea Albus Rice, a college social worker at Washington University in St. Louis who often helps students with eating disorders, has seen many of her patients struggle as they returned from campus to their hometowns. They lost the sense of independence they established at school, where they could create their own routines for healthy eating.

Dr. Gold recommends that parents focus on providing opportunities for their children to share their stories and personal experiences, rather than closely monitoring their food intake. She said that it can be helpful for parents to begin by discussing their own vulnerabilities, with open-ended questions like: “I’ve been struggling a lot with my emotions during the pandemic. How has stuff been for you?”

Others have found support by plugging into the communities created by larger organizations. The National Eating Disorders Association has hosted virtual events throughout the pandemic, including webinars and online versions of the organization’s walkathons.

“Eating disorders thrive in isolation,” Ms. Mysko said. “We’ve realized the need for a sense of connection, and we’re reframing what our community looks like while we’re sheltering in place.”

Excerpted from “Disordered Eating in a Disordered Time” in The New York Times. Read the full article.

Source: The New York Times | Disordered Eating in a Disordered Time, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/health/eating-disorders-coronavirus.html | © 2020 The New York Times Company

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