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Eating disorder charity says cost of living crisis has led to increase in calls

Beat says having to skip meals could be a trigger for people who are vulnerable to an eating disorder.

As the cost of living crisis sends shock waves through the country, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity has warned that the number of people struggling with a “morbid preoccupation with food” is likely to soar.

Jess Griffiths, the clinical director at Beat, said that there has been an increased number of calls to their helpline from people suffering with eating disorders over the last couple of months. They have also had more carers getting in touch, worried about the impact of food shortages and the cost of living on supporting young people with eating disorders. 

“They might well have a dietitian in their eating disorder service,” Griffiths explained. “And they can’t afford to get all the bits on the meal plan to make that work for as long as recovery. That’s really stressful for your recovery journey. It’s such a delicate process of introducing fear foods and sticking to a plan and being weighed. It’s a whole journey of recovery. We’ve noticed a lot more distress around that.”

In April, 7.3 million adults said they had skipped a meal or struggled to obtain food that month. There was also a rapid 57 per cent rise in the proportion of households cutting back on food or missing meals altogether in just three months. That will have a worrying impact on people recovering from eating disorders, Griffiths warned.

“If someone is vulnerable to an eating disorder or if they’ve had an eating disorder in the past, skipping meals could be a real trigger for them to relapse or even trigger the start of an eating disorder,” she said.

“Disordered eating and eating disorders are about a morbid preoccupation around food and weight. Any scarcity or deprivation is most likely going to increase that preoccupation. I think scarcity of food can be a real trigger for people, particularly with binge eating disorders [when a person feels compelled to overeat]. If they feel deprived that can cause real anxiety around food and binges which leads to so much guilt and shame.”

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Brits’ reliance on food banks has increased rapidly.  The Trussell Trust gave out 2.1 million emergency food parcels between April 2021 and March 2022, an increase of 14 per cent compared to the same period between 2019 and 2020.

But the number of families struggling to afford food is likely higher than food bank figures would suggest, as some people report the stigma and shame around poverty stops them seeking help to eat.

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Griffiths added that guilt and shame could cause a rise in binge eating disorders. “That would be my prediction – there’s guilt and shame of not having enough money and then, when they’re bingeing on food, there’s more guilt and shame about eating food and being wasteful.”

Research has found that people with mental health problems are nearly twice as likely as those without to have felt unable to cope due to the rising cost of living. Griffiths explains that an eating disorder is often a way of dealing with emotional distress.

“If those feelings become really overwhelming and we can’t be in control of them, we might look to focus on something else or use food as a mechanism for controlling those feelings,” she said.

“It’s like a bit of an addiction. It makes them feel in control and makes them feel an emotional relief. They might dabble with it and notice that, as they skip those meals, they feel more emotionally in control. And that could lead to a more severe eating disorder.”

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Griffiths said that there is misconception that eating disorders only affect people from a privileged background. But eating disorders have worrying implications for people from low-income and ethnic minority backgrounds because they might not have the access to resources for recovery. 

“When I talk to people from ethnic minority backgrounds, they often say: ‘There’s no word for eating disorders in my community’. It’s very hard to translate that across, particularly for people with binge eating disorder. It’s likely to be the most common eating disorder in the UK, but it’s probably the less known about.”

According to the latest NHS figures released earlier this year, more young people than ever before are receiving treatment for eating disorders. Almost 10,000 children and young people started treatment between April and December 2021 – up by almost two thirds since before the pandemic.

Griffiths said that the emotional impact of the pandemic caused this significant rise in people suffering with eating disorders. And now, the cost of living crisis is causing yet more distress.

“We’ve still got this massive surge in eating disorders in young people that happened over lockdown,” she said, “and that hasn’t subsided yet either. The NHS is very much working through the waiting list. And now this on top, it’s a scary time.”

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or you know someone who is, get help and support through Beat’s website.

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