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Elisa Clemente: Eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders (EDs) are mental health conditions where the control of food is used to cope with difficult situations or feelings.

Unhealthy eating behaviours can include limiting the amount of food eaten, eating very large amounts of food at once, or worrying about the body or shape, amongst others. While female teenagers aged between 13 and 17 are most commonly affected, EDs affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds.

How many people suffer from eating disorders?

Statistics on the prevalence of EDs vary widely. Recently, a group of researchers performed a systematic literature review of several studies carried out between 2013 and 2018 that reported the prevalence of EDs. They found that EDs were highly prevalent worldwide: on average, 7.8% people had been diagnosed with an ED at some point in their lifetime. The same review also separately analysed studies undertaken between 2000 and 2006 and found a lower average prevalence of EDs (3.5%), suggesting their prevalence is increasing. However, this observed increase could result from a variety of factors, including changes in their classification (which was revised in 2013) or the proportion of individuals seeking help, as well as increased awareness of these conditions.

In the UK, not enough research has been carried out to draw firm conclusions, but it is estimated that 1.25-1.37 million people suffer from an ED. The situation seems to be getting worse. In England, hospital admissions for EDs have risen 37% between 2016-17 and 2018-19. According to Dr Agnes Ayton, of the faculty of eating disorders at the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), this is likely to reflect an increase in the number of people becoming seriously ill, rather than increased awareness, since people are only admitted to hospital when the situation is life-threatening.

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