By: Olivia Kuhlmann, RD, MPH, CDE

Reviewed By: Marie-Pier Pitre D’Iorio, RD, B.Sc. Psychology 

If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that social isolation heavily impacts the development, maintenance and relapse of eating disorders. In the wake of the pandemic, advancements in technology and more people working from home have resulted in some long-lasting and detrimental social impacts1.

Unsurprisingly, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of hospitalizations for eating disorders increased by over 60%2!!! (and that’s only hospitalization, it doesnt take into account folks who have been struggling in silence or accessing other levels of care).

This post aims to shed light on the impacts of social isolation and loneliness on eating disorders and pivotal role that communities can play in the eating disorder treatment. By emphasizing the importance of “socialization” as a Social Determinant of Health, we can work towards building communities that have the tools and skills necessary to prevent eating disorders and support recovery.


Prefer to listen to the podcast? You can do so here (episode 152)


Understanding COVID-19, Isolation, & Eating Disorders

COVID-19 took a significant toll on the mental health of everyone, but especially children and youth. From March 2020 to May 2022, hospitalizations for young women with eating disorders aged 10 to 17 increased by nearly 60%2. For many, the impact of the pandemic created a perfect storm for the development of new eating disorders and also for the worsenin of pre-existing eating disorder symptoms. This has been often correlated to the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, however, experts believe that the loneliness and social isolation people experienced during the pandemic played a critical role3

So how does loneliness and isolation lead to an increase in eating disorders?

We know that folks who suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are all associated with higher rates of loneliness and isolation (both in reality and perception)6. And we also know that an increase sense of loneliness and isolation is a risk factor for developping and maintaining an eating disorder. But why??

First off, an increase of loneliness and isolation resulted in many folks spending more time on social media. Which although we know social media can have some benefits (like connecting with peers), it also has many adversed effects, especially on younger folks.

Social media promotes an unrealistic beauty standards, thin idealism, and diet culture propaganda. There is SO much misinformation regarding food and health which can lead to users developing unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies.

Secondly, eating disorders are shame-based illnesses. And shame thrives in isolation. This can perpetuate eating disorders thoughts and behaviours and leave people feeling hopeless.

Lastly, the lack of support and access to other coping skills can reinforce and worsen eating disorder symptoms.

THE “SOCIAL” IN SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH

Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. The Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) refer to the non-medical related factors that have an impact on people’s health4. The SDoH is made up of the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age. They include things like:

As we see above and in research, a lack of social connection, social inclusion and discrimination can lead to poorer health outcomes1.

The COVID-19 pandemic was an extreme situation that brought greater awareness to the harmful impacts of isolation and loneliness on health (both mental and physical) and especially for eating disorders.

But do you want the good news?

If a lack of social connection and isolation has such negative impacts on health, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be true.

Public health research estimates that anywhere between 40-80% of health and wellness is tied to social factors1! So how do we leverage the health benefits of socialization, connectedness, and community? And what does this mean for people living with eating disorders?

THE HEALING POWER OF COMMUNITIES

Here at The Balanced Practice, we really believe in the power of community support. We intentionally over the last 2-3 years have added group components to almost all of our services because we know how impactful it has been to our clients and their recovery!

Here are some of the benefits of community support:

1. Sense Of Belonging

Belonging is one of our basic needs as human beings. We all want to belong. And belonging to a pro-recovery community can be extremely supportive in meeting that need WHILE engaging in recovery behaviours.

Belonging to a group of people who share similar experiences can help overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation. It helps reduce the shame that can accompany the eating disorder because we can develop a sense of common humanity with our peers.

2. Supportive Environment

Being part fo a group increases our support system. We know that having an engaged support system during recovery is favourable to positive treatment outcomes. Therefore, being part of a pro-recovery community increases the overall support we are receiving and can become part of our adaptive coping skills.

Furthermore, it also allows the person to offer support to others. Offering help and support to others going through recovery can be really helpful for both parties, as the person who is offering the support can feel a sense of purpose and also deepens their own recovery thoughts and behaviours.

3. Opportunity to Learn From Others

Another great aspect of group is community learning. Learning as a group can be really supportive as it provides opportunities to:

And more! We really believe that community learning is so helpful, especially in eating disorder recovery as it provides so many opportunies for growth that we may not get in individualized care.

Building YOUR Community

It takes a village! As we’ve discussed, eating disorder recovery is very rarely a solo journey (and you dont have to do it alone!!) In addition to their recovery communities, people with eating disorders can receive support from:

Eating disorder recovery requires a collaborative and holistic approach. Providing support to learn the necessary skills and tools is an essential part of the recovery process.

At The Balanced Practice, we offer Family Support as part of our treatment because again, we really beleive in the role of community and engaging all support systems. If you want to learn more, check out our Eating Disorder Recovery Program.

Eating disorder recovery can be a long and tumultuous process. Eating disorders thrive in isolation, which often results in people feeling like they have to fight their battles alone. Incorporating family and community into the recovery process can help to provide the support, acceptance, and guidance that people need to heal and maintain their healing in the face of relapse.


The Balanced Practice’s Eating Disorder Recovery ProgramTM is accepting new clients. If you are ready to recover from your eating disorder in a weight-inclusive and safe space, this is for you! Click here to join the info session


Conclusion:

Community should be a part of all eating disorder treatment in some capacity. There is so much power in engaing your support systems. Recovering as part of a group can be a really great experience that leads to positive treatment outcomes.

References:

[1] Holt-Lunstad, J. (2022). Social Connection as a public health issue: The evidence and a systemic framework for prioritizing the “social” in Social Determinants of Health. Annual Review of Public Health, 43(1), 193–213.

[2] Canadian Institute for Health Information. (May 5, 2022). Hospitalizations for eating disorders among young women jumped by more than 50% during the COVID-19 pandemic [media release].

[3] Varadi, Z. (February 1, 2022). Eating disorders rose dramatically among young Canadians during COVID’s first wave. University of Calgary: Faculty of Social Work. 

[4] World Health Organization. Social Determinants of Health. World Health Organization. 

[5] National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 21). On the importance of community in the path toward self-acceptance and recovery

[6] Levine, M. P. (2012). Loneliness and eating disorders. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 243–257.