Are Eating Disorders becoming more common?

Having a food and body image obsession is a mental illness

Through the press and media, people are becoming increasingly aware of conditions such as bulimia, anorexia and other eating issues, together with their impact on society today.

It could be argued that until recently the full extent of the serious mental illness experienced by people with eating problems has not been fully realised as too little has been known or openly discussed about it.  It is a mental illness that is characterised by not eating, over eating, over-exercise or unhealthy body weight or shape becoming a preoccupation of someone’s life.

Why do people develop issues with eating?

The exact cause of the start of an unhealthy relationship with food is not fully known.  There are three types, Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa and Binge-eating. Similar to other mental illnesses there may be a variety of reasons as to what plays a role in developing one of the eating disorders.  For example, low self-esteem, catastrophic relationships, bullying by peers, change in brain chemicals whilst a teenager and emotional problems could all be contributors.

The role of social media in increasing eating disorders

Eating disorders can affect females and males but they mostly develop in teen and young adult years and in the majority of cases it is females that are affected. Before social media, there were fashion magazines where celebrities were being photographed all around the world and young teenagers were comparing their bodies and trying to aspire to be the same as the body shape they were seeing in the photographs. 

Now there are still magazines, but more importantly, social media has absolutely rocketed and with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with its Influencers capturing every moment of their lives, there is suddenly a much bigger field of body comparisons that can be made  This technological advancement has clearly led to an increase in cases of eating disorders and not just in the UK but on a worldwide scale as other parts of the world are becoming more Westernised and teenage ideals change with it.

thin woman

Possibly one of the saddest things is that the photographs in magazines and those in social media have been altered by lighting or the photo has been photoshopped to make a more perfect image. The person then viewing that image and making a comparison to themselves does not take the altered image into account, they choose to see a perfect body and one that they too want to have. 

The role of covid 19 in people developing problems with eating

Covid and the imposed lockdown measures have also had an impact on people with eating disorders and the number of reported cases has almost doubled.  Isolation, lack of structure, inability to fully exercise and heightened anxiety are four possible triggers for the increase in the number of young people with a mental obsession with eating, not eating, over eating and their body image.

During the lockdown period, press reports and social media began to put an emphasis on not gaining weight or not losing fitness levels.  This led to many young people changing their eating habits along with struggling with boredom due to self-isolation. Trying to get help also become more difficult due to people being unable to access face to face clinical appointments. This has led to a spiralling of many individual’s mental and physical state.  Working from home also presented its own problems as individuals were on their own near a fully stocked kitchen. Conversely, on a more positive note, those that were isolating within a family unit were able to get mental support from family members.

Certainly, the pandemic raised awareness of mental health issues and in particular those suffering with any form of eating disorder. It globally heightened the understanding of the dangers of mental health problems.  There also followed an unexpectedly high number of male and female teenagers who sadly felt that the only way out for their suffering was for them to take their own lives.

Measures taken to alleviate the growth in anorexia

Anorexia is probably the most commonly known eating disorder and there are steps being taken to try and stop a continuing increase in numbers. One simple step is the proposed legislation to ban the airbrushing of photographs of celebrities and models and for people of all shapes and sizes to be used as models, from catwalks to fashion shoots, instead.    

Another area of proposed legislation is to stop the many websites and forums that are pro anorexia.  These are meeting places for people who restrict their eating to share extreme tips on avoiding food and to congratulate each other on losing weight. Theses sites actually glamorise anorexia and totally ignore the depths of mental despair that individuals can suffer.  They are not a help – in fact quite the reverse and can lead to people to continue with their destructive eating behaviour feeling that it is actually all right to do so.

Diets and their role in the development of problems with eating

A further area that has been a cause of increased eating disorder numbers is the rise in so many diets. These have more than doubled since Covid and the imposed lockdown and working from home. Many of these diets will actually help someone with issues such as anorexia to mask their own abnormal behaviours.  If challenged by a loved one, it is very easy to say they have started a new diet that is the “fad’ of the moment.

It is better to talk openly about eating and body image problems

Although there has clearly been a rise in the number of people suffering with problems such as anorexia, bulimia and over eating the mere fact that it is now being widely discussed and written about makes it far easier for people to feel comfortable in asking for help. In fact, a surprisingly high number of well-known celebrities have come forward and shared the mental health problems that they have been facing. 

If people, who teenagers have aspired to emulate, have been able to come forward and share that they have had serious emotional issues, this should help in reducing the  steady increase in those becoming ill.