Physical distancing measures may promote disordered eating habits

Photo of computer on desk
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in physical distancing measures and remote learning for students, which may be particularly hard on students who have eating disorders. Factors such as increased stress, anxiety and disruptions to daily routines could exacerbate disordered eating, as well as food insecurity.

Related Posts

Content warning: This article discusses topics pertaining to disordered eating and eating disorders. 

Physical distancing measures and remote learning may be exacerbating disordered eating, as well as food insecurity, among students.

Isolation, social media and changes to daily routines could be contributing to the onset of eating disorders among students, according to Paula Edwards-Gayfield, regional assistant vice President at The Renfrew Center — a treatment facility for women, adolescents and transgender individuals with eating disorders. UC Berkeley students who are struggling with eating disorders can seek assistance from University Health Services, or UHS, which offers counseling and other forms of support.

“The pandemic has added new challenges and exacerbated problems that were already there,” said Toby Morris, UHS lead clinical dietitian, in an email. “Many people are experiencing increased stress, anxiety, and depression, which can affect how we take care of ourselves–including basics like eating.”

As a result of the pandemic and routine changes, students may be facing food insecurity, eating too much or too little, struggling to buy and prepare food or obsessing over food and body image, Morris said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, The Renfrew Center has shifted many of its programs to a virtual format. In March, it began a virtual treatment program for individuals with eating disorders.

“In times of stress, people can definitely turn to food or food-related items or topics, and that could be restrictive behaviors,” Edwards-Gayfield said. “It also could be a little bit more emotional eating or actually binge eating.”

Increased television and social media consumption resulting from disruption to people’s regular daily routines prior to March can prompt greater preoccupation with food and body image, according to Edwards-Gayfield.

On social media, for instance, jokes related to weight gain during the pandemic can contribute to the formation of disordered eating habits, Edwards-Gayfield said.

“There’s this implication that they should be worried about gaining weight in this crisis,” Edwards-Gayfield said. “That message is just really harmful to everyone, but definitely to people who are susceptible to developing, or who are actively struggling with, an eating disorder.”

To help prevent the onset of eating disorders, Edwards-Gayfield suggests keeping flexible routines, taking breaks from social media and reaching out for support, whether that be seeking treatment or getting more information about eating disorders.

UHS offers medical and psychological support to students through its outpatient eating disorders team, Morris said in the email. UHS also offers workshops and cooking demonstrations related to topics such as mindful eating, body image and eating disorder prevention to campus groups.

Students experiencing food insecurity can visit the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Center website for information about available resources, including the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which offers emergency food supplies to members of the campus community.

Contact Emma Rooholfada at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.