Caitlin Tan Published

Rural Areas Bring Unique Challenges For Those With Eating Disorders During Pandemic

Eating disorders do not discriminate.

Alicia Lewis has struggled with a binge eating disorder for most her life. It involves eating large amounts of food in a short period of time.

Like others who suffer with the issue, Lewis, who lives in Huntington, often feels a loss of control and guilt.

But overeating is how she copes with her depression.

When the pandemic hit and she was furloughed from work, she found she was more depressed. So, she turned to food.

“I gained about 30 pounds — I want to say in probably three or four months just from depression eating,” Lewis said. “I was so unsure of what the future was holding, and I was anxious about my husband going to work and bringing COVID home to me or going out and catching COVID, and I was worried about my mother and my family.”

Lewis is not alone. Mental health across the nation has taken a toll since the pandemic began — and this includes eating disorders.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, hotline calls are up nearly 80 percent in the past year.

Nationally, more than a third of the country’s population dealing with binge eating disorders reported an increase in episodes after the pandemic kicked off. For those diagnosed with anorexia, more than 60 percent reported an episode, according to a study last year by the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

This trend seems to exist in West Virginia, as well. Jess Luzier, Charleston Disordered Eating Center clinical director, said she saw dozens more people requiring services when the pandemic first hit.

“People who were in early or even sustained remission from eating disorder behaviors, many of them struggled with relapse when the COVID-19 pandemic hit us,” Luzier said.

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric illnesses — no one chooses to have one, said Luzier. Their severity can depend on a variety of factors.

“Dieting history, perfectionism or impulsivity, self-esteem, body esteem, even things like participation in sports that emphasize weight can affect the development of eating disorders,” Luzier said.

For many, these factors have only gotten worse as more people are practicing social distancing and spending time by themselves at home.

But there is something else that can make eating disorders even worse, and Luzier said it is especially true to West Virginians — limited access to affordable food.

“I don’t know where my next meal is going to come from, or I’m not sure that I can pay for groceries this week, most commonly is going to be loss of control eating episodes, or binge-eating episodes,” she said.

Food insecurity has gotten even harder for people living in rural food deserts in the middle of a pandemic, Luzier said. Food pantries were literally running out of food this time last year.

“And that was really scary for a lot of people,” Luzier said. “It led to this hyperfixation on food, and, ‘Will I have food?’ Because none of us knew what was going to happen.”

As more West Virginians have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, and the world begins to return to a sense of normalcy, Luzier said eating disorders and poor food access will still be here. This makes treatment crucial.

She recommended researching on NEDA’s website and visiting a primary physician first.

As for Lewis, she is hopeful and in “recovery” from her eating disorder.

In the last year, Lewis received a gastric bypass surgery to limit her appetite. She lost the 30 pounds she gained at the start of the pandemic, re-entered trauma therapy and is learning again how to care for herself.

Lewis said she takes comfort from this mantra: “We are human, you are human. And we’re in a pandemic, these are unprecedented times,” Lewis said. “‘You are human’ was what I needed to hear after struggling all year with my weight and my eating and my depression because there were so many days where I felt less than human.”

If you or someone you know needs help with an eating disorder, call the national helpline at 1-800-931-2237.