While the stay-at-home orders and isolation caused by the COVID-19 crisis have been challenging for almost everyone around the globe, emerging studies reveal COVID isolation may be especially difficult for those with (or vulnerable to) Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
If you or a loved one are struggling with this common eating disorder, here is a brief look at why isolation can be triggering, plus three tips to help you address and overcome Binge Eating Disorder in COVID isolation.
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Although Binge Eating Disorder (BED) wasn’t officially classified as an eating disorder in the DSM-5 until 2013, it is now the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting an estimated 2.8 million people . Binge Eating Disorder, like any other eating disorder, is a serious and life-threatening (yet treatable) illness. The following symptoms characterize BED:
- Recurring episodes of eating a large amount of food in a relatively short period of time (about 2 hours)
- Binge eating episodes often involve eating in private, eating quickly, feeling out of control while eating, and eating to the point of discomfort
- Engaging in binge-eating episodes at least once a week for three or more months
- Feeling guilt or shame after an episode of binge eating
- Not regularly engaging in unhealthy compensatory behaviors (like excessive exercise or purging) to offset the binge episode
Binge Eating Disorder and COVID Isolation
Numerous reports show that individuals with eating disorders (and those vulnerable to developing an eating disorder) have experienced worsened ED symptoms and more frequent urges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, one study published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders revealed that over one-third of participants in a study said their eating disorder was worse as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis .
The same study found that individuals with bulimia were reporting a higher number of binge eating episodes and urges during the pandemic . Another study on COVID-19 and Binge Eating Disorder found that social isolation can be an “aggravating factor” for those with (or vulnerable to) Binge Eating Disorder .
In fact, of the 447 volunteer participants in the study (all of whom were socially isolating due to COVID), 22.8 percent met the criteria for moderate to severe Binge Eating Disorder . Keep in mind that under normal circumstances, the average rate of BED found in the population is only 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men.
This means incidences of Binge Eating Disorder were considerably higher among a socially isolated population, indicating COVID isolation may exacerbate eating disorder symptoms. Also important to note here is that before the study (and social isolation), none of the participants had a diagnosed eating disorder .
There are several reasons why COVID isolation can cause problems for those with (or vulnerable to) Binge Eating Disorder. These include fear and anxiety about the virus, loneliness, lack of social support, disruption of routine, and stress over job and finances.
Another way COVID has been triggering for those with BED is the issues around food shortages and/or surpluses. The sight of empty grocery store shelves can generate fear and feelings of scarcity, prompting an urge to binge.
Furthermore, many people have stockpiled their home pantries with extra food (often foods that are triggering to those with BED), which can also prompt bingeing urges. In short, in the face of stress and anxiety, food shortages/surplus, and social isolation, it can be easy for vulnerable individuals to turn to disordered eating as an escape from the chaos and uncertainty of the world around them.
But the good news is, you don’t have to engage in your Binge Eating Disorder behaviors in COVID isolation. While this period of isolation may be challenging, it can also be a time of recovery and healing. If you have been struggling with Binge Eating Disorder and COVID isolation, here are three ways you can address and overcome Binge Eating Disorder in COVID isolation.
Three Ways to Overcome These Challenges in COVID Isolation
1) Establish a Flexible Schedule
If you’re in COVID isolation, most likely, your regular routine/schedule is a thing of the past and you’ve probably found yourself with a surplus of downtime to kill. In an already stressful year, this disruption of routine and lack of activity can be triggering to your eating disorder. Meaning when you feel discouraged, bored, or lonely, you may be tempted to turn to food to help you cope with your emotions. This is where a flexible schedule can help.
Try setting weekly goals or intentions and writing out a loose idea of how you’d like your days to go. It can also be helpful to plan out mealtimes and snacks to ensure you’re not getting too hungry or depriving yourself of the nutrients you need to stay healthy (which can also trigger binge eating).
2) Reach Out
Just because you’re socially distanced from friends and family doesn’t mean you have to be disconnected. As studies show, social isolation can exacerbate eating disorder symptoms, so make it a priority to connect with others (zoom calls, Facetime, texts, letters, etc.) regularly.
In addition to connecting with friends and loved ones, it is important to reach out to an eating disorder specialist if you’ve been struggling with BED. Remember, BED is a severe (sometimes life-threatening) illness and often requires professional help to overcome. So take advantage of the extra downtime you have right now and connect with an online ED therapist and/or online eating disorder support group.
3) Embrace Activity
One of the best ways to combat a binge eating urge is to distract yourself by engaging in a positive, healthy activity. This might be taking a bubble bath, reading a book, cleaning the house, going for a walk in nature, listening to music, baking, watching a movie, doing a yoga flow, or picking up a new (or old) hobby like painting, drawing, writing, or playing an instrument. The next time you find your thoughts running in a disordered eating direction, redirect your mind by engaging in a positive, fun activity.
References: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016, June 1). Definition & Facts for Binge Eating Disorder. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/binge-eating-disorder/definition-facts.  Konstantinovsky, M. (2020, August 26). COVID-19-Era Isolation Is Making Dangerous Eating Disorders Worse. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-era-isolation-is-making-dangerous-eating-disorders-worse/.  ibid.  Hanada, T., Cestari, R., Eduardo Miguel, L., Miguel, B., Casati , M., & Pereira, R. (2020). Periodic Binge Eating Disorder during the Social Isolation Due to Covid-19 Pandemics. iMedPub Journals. https://obesity.imedpub.com/periodic-binge-eating-disorder-during-the-social-isolation-due-to-covid19-pandemics.pdf.  ibid.  ibid.
About the Author:
Sarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.
Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published November 24, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 24, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC