Study revealing impact of COVID-19 on people living with eating disorders

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EDGI Lead Investigator, founding Director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) and Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders at UNC School of Medicine, Cynthia Bulik, PhD, U.S. is collaborating with UNC researchers on a study examining the impact of COVID-19 on people with eating disorders. Publication of their preliminary U.S. and the Netherlands study data is set to offer clinicians and carers a roadmap forward as the pandemic continues to evolve.

When the COVID-19 pandemic led to mandatory stay at home orders and physical distancing efforts, Prof Bulik took quick action to understand how this was affecting those living with eating disorders.

Prof Bulik, together with Director of the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (NCEED), Clinical Associate Professor Christine Peat, PhD, U.S. received rapid ethical approval to survey people with eating disorders in the U.S. and the Netherlands, to assess how they were being impacted. They have published the information they gained from a baseline survey involving approximately 1,000 participants who joined their study in April and May 2020.

According to Prof Bulik, people with eating disorders are really struggling.

“Those who are alone are really feeling the lack of support and are saying that they find themselves swirling around in negative thoughts. Many are also finding it hard to stay motivated to recover. On the other hand, some who are working on recovery, but are living in close quarters with others, are having trouble finding the privacy to, for example, have telehealth sessions with their treatment team.”

Prof Bulik and her research team found U.S. study participants living with anorexia nervosa were reporting increased dietary restriction and fears about being able to find foods consistent with their meal plan. People living with bulimia or binge-eating disorder reported increases in binge-eating episodes and urges to binge. Respondents also cited an increase in their anxiety levels since 2019 and fears their eating disorder would worsen due to a lack of structure and social support, and living in a triggering environment.

“Eating disorders truly thrive in isolation. Much of the secrecy associated with eating disorders is driven by anxiety, and can include secret exercise for weight loss, secret binge eating, secret purging or other behaviours. Having others around can be a deterrent to engaging in unhealthy behaviours. When you are alone, there are no social deterrents, so the eating disorder can escalate unchecked,” Prof Bulik said.

Just over 80 per cent of U.S. study participants already in eating disorders treatment pre-COVID reported having transitioned to telehealth services, although their satisfaction with such was mixed, with almost half citing their treatment had been worse than usual.

Concerningly, 47 per cent of the U.S. participants reported not receiving any form of treatment for their eating disorder. Prof Bulik hopes the preliminary data they are sharing now, together with additional data collected in this year-long study, will inform best practices for clinicians and carers, and provide a roadmap for eating disorders care as the pandemic continues to evolve.

To help the EDGI team to identify the hundreds of genes that influence a person’s risk of developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, visit the EDGI homepage to volunteer.

Should you suspect that you, or a loved one, may be living with an eating disorder, speak to your local healthcare practitioner without delay, or head to www.insideoutinstitute.org.au to complete their screener and assessment, and to access more information and professional support.

Australian professional patient support services offering 24/7 helpline services include:

o     Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

o     LifeLine: 13 11 14

o     Men’s Line Australia: 1300 78 99 78

o     Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800. 

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