Comprehensive literature review of COVID impact on eating disorders has implications for care
The review, which found that young people and those with existing eating-related issues were most at risk of being impacted by COVID-19, supports Butterfly’s launch of an eating disorder-specific Help Hub – a purpose-built resource to support the mental health of people living with eating disorders and disordered eating
- Butterfly Foundation has released the world’s most comprehensive literature review to assess the collective impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours.
- People living with diagnosed eating disorders, along with children and adolescents, were at highest risk of relapsing into eating disorders during the pandemic.
- Eating disorder behaviours are being used to self-manage heightened psychological distress associated with the pandemic.
- Disordered eating increased among the general population during the pandemic, with a significant increase in binge eating behaviours, suggesting that binge eating may have played a large role in coping during this time
- There was a 48% increase (pre-covid) in contacts to the Butterfly National Helpline from FY20 to FY21.
Findings released today from the world’s largest global review assessing the impacts of COVID-19 on eating disorders and disordered eating, shows social distancing mandates, changes in living situations, lockdowns, increased stress, and uncertainty associated with the pandemic have directly triggered eating disordered behaviours in at risk groups.
In partnership with Monash University, Butterfly Foundation has released the study titled, ‘The impacts of COVID-19 on eating disorders and disordered eating: A mixed studies systematic review and implications for healthcare professionals, carers, and self’, which found that during the pandemic there was an increase in eating disorders and disordered eating behaviour, particularly among young people and those with a previous condition, with binge eating and food restriction most prevalent.
The paper (pre-print), reviewed 72 global studies, to reveal that the issue is as global as the COVID-19 pandemic itself:
- In North America, there was a 62% increase in paediatric emergency department annual visits for eating disorders in 2020 compared to 2018–2019.
- US researchers determined eating disorder patients were nearly 9 times as likely to be readmitted to hospital within 30 days post lockdown than pre-lockdown, with 33 to 40% of patients reporting onset or exacerbation of eating disorder symptoms were directly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic or lockdowns.
- The strain on global eating disorder national helplines increased by 195% in the United Kingdom, 67% in Canada and 57% increase in the United States. 
Speaking to the findings, Clinical Director at the Butterfly Foundation, Dr Ranjani Utpala said, “There has been a lot of discussion around increased risk of mental health conditions including eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic, and researchers around the world have worked hard to understand the impact of the pandemic.
“This systematic review enables us to get a global picture and the results clearly identified an increase in eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours, like binge eating and food restriction, associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, two groups were most negatively impacted – those with a diagnosed eating disorder and children and adolescents.
“Findings of this review suggest that for these groups, during the pandemic they have been using eating disorder behaviours to self-manage heightened psychological distress,” Ranjani said.
Responding to the study findings and in response to impacts of COVID-19 for people with eating disorders, Butterfly Foundation has launched its COVID Help Hub, supported by funding from the Federal Government. This resource has been developed to equip people living with or at risk of developing eating disorders and body image concerns, as well as carers and healthcare professionals with information and support to help them cope with COVID-19 related stress and returning to life after lockdowns.
In addition, Butterfly’s newly launched Referral Database allows individuals to search for eating disorder professionals and services closest to their area. Health Care Professionals on the database have been screened by Butterfly for experience and experts in eating disorders, and users can search by location, type of health professional, type of treatment and more, to be presented with contact details for relevant clinicians.
According to Ranjani, who co-authored the review, disordered eating behaviours largely increased during the pandemic. “Behaviours such as binge eating, as well as an increase in weight and shape concerns, body dissatisfaction, uncontrolled eating, eating to cope and compensatory exercise behaviours have been heightened with the impact of COVID.”
Butterfly Foundation CEO, Kevin Barrow explained the COVID Help Hub is a new tool designed to provide practical information, solutions, and support to those who need it. “Eating disorders thrive in isolation and the pandemic has undoubtedly created a perfect storm for those experiencing, or at risk of, this insidious mental illness.
“Months of lockdowns, isolation and changes in routine have been incredibly challenging for people with eating or body image issues, as well as for the loved ones who care for them.
“Responding to this need, Butterfly is very proud to launch both the COVID Help Hub and Referral Database at a time when our community needs us the most. It is imperative there is a continuum of support long after lockdowns have eased and restrictions have lifted,” said Kevin. “Open and easy access to these resources will assist as we transition back to school, work and social occasions.”
People living with eating disorders or disordered eating, or who are concerned about themselves or their loved ones are encouraged to speak to their GP to access professional psychological treatment, or to contact the Butterfly Foundation Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).
Ph: 0497 008 716
Edelman for Butterfly Foundation
Ph: 0431 465 004
Editor and producers note: Please include the following support line details in all media coverage of this story and refer to the Mindframe Media guidelines for safe reporting on eating disorders. Please include the following helpline message.
Help and Support
Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact:
- Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE) or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline on 1300 550 23
- For urgent support call Lifeline 13 11 14