With all the stress, anxiety, and loneliness that’s piling on due to COVID-19, it’s no wonder so many people are turning to food and other substances to fight through the pain. “We’re seeing a lot more challenges with compulsive or addictive habits, such as drugs and alcohol or disordered eating,” says Dr. Julie Brush, a naturopath at Amen Clinics who previously served as director of a residential treatment center for addictions and eating disorders.
She says the COVID-related anxiety and depression is causing people with binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or anorexia nervosa to experience a worsening of their illness and to have a harder time controlling their symptoms. “We’re also seeing people who don’t have an eating disorder diagnosis, but who are falling into unhealthy eating patterns,” she says.
I can relate. In my book The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, I reveal that I suffered from an eating disorder when I was growing up. For me, it was a way to gain some control over something in my life when everything else felt completely out of my control.
Because of my own personal experience and due to the pandemic driving disordered eating, I wanted to check in with Dr. Brush to debunk some of the most common—and harmful—myths about eating disorders. (You can see our interview on my “Relentless Courage” show on YouTube.)
Myth #1: Eating disorders are no big deal.
Real deal: Many people think that eating disorders are harmless. Wrong! Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health problem, and they’re associated with a higher risk of suicide. As many as 20% of people with chronic anorexia nervosa die as a result of the condition, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Aside from the alarming mortality rate, eating disorders can have devastating consequences on physical health and can impair brain health. Because of this, it’s critical to seek professional help for these issues rather than hoping they’ll just “go away.”
Myth #2: Eating disorders are strictly an adolescent issue.
Real deal: Eating disorders are typically viewed as something that occurs during adolescence, but Dr. Brush says she also sees a lot of adults with the condition. “In most cases, the roots are in adolescence, but it doesn’t stop there,” she says. “There’s a lot of shame in eating disorders and that can stop people from reaching out for help.” According to Dr. Brush, many adults feel so ashamed about their eating issues that they aren’t even truthful with their healthcare providers. Opening up and be honest about unhealthy eating habits is the first step to healing.
Myth #3: Only females struggle with eating disorders.
Real deal: Eating disorders are more common in women, but they can affect males too. “I’ve treated men with eating disorders,” says Dr. Brush, “and it can be harder for them to reach out for help.” Teens and grown men are subjected to a lot of the same social media influences that affect females. For instance, they may feel the need to live up to impossible expectations to look fit. Disordered eating in males may focus more on building muscle as opposed to weight loss, which is more common in females.
Myth #4: Eating disorders are simply a problem with food.
Real deal: “Eating disorders are actually a coping mechanism to deal with underlying issues like trauma, anxiety, or depression,” says Dr. Brush. There are many possible root causes that can contribute to binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, or orthorexia (an obsession with “healthy” eating). Many treatment programs focus solely on controlling food intake, but “if you don’t address the root causes,” says Dr. Brush, “you’ll constantly be battling the issue.”
Myth #5: Eating disorders are a personal choice.
Real deal: Eating disorders are related to biochemistry and brain function and can be influenced by environmental factors. The stressors of the pandemic are making it harder for people to practice healthy coping strategies and are pushing some of them over the edge into disordered eating. For example, a lack of structure may be contributing to the problem, according to Dr. Brush. You may have had a healthy pre-pandemic routine—structured meals, regular gym sessions, and places to procure healthy foods. Now, however, you may be working from home while homeschooling the kids. Your gym may be closed. And your grocery store may not be fully stocked with the foods that help keep your body, brain, and mind strong. “Our farmer’s market was closed for months and that’s where I used to get my produce,” says Dr. Brush. She suggests creating some structure to your days by dividing the day into 3 parts—morning, afternoon, evening—and setting a goal for each part. For example, “Walk 30 minutes in the morning, call your mom in the afternoon, and read for 30 minutes in the evening,” she says. Having something constructive for each part of the day can help you recreate that helpful structure.
If you’re struggling with eating issues, there is help. Dr. Brush is available for in-person and telemedicine appointments through Amen Clinics (call 844-818-0616 to schedule an appointment). If you have trouble with food cravings, try Craving Control, and if you need help with your moods during the pandemic, try Happy Saffron Plus. You can get 21% off your order at BrainMD with the promo code TANA21.