“Eating disorders are complex brain-based illnesses with both psychological and physical components. They affect almost 10% of the population and have become much more prevalent since the COVID-19 pandemic began.[1] They are characterized by significant disturbances in behaviors and attitudes that surround eating, body weight, and body shape[2] and include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, night-eating syndrome, and other specified feeding and eating disorders. Eating disorders can lead to life-threatening medical complications and frequently co-occur with other debilitating mental illnesses such as bipolar, depressive, and anxiety disorders.[3] People with a family history of an eating disorder or any other significant mental illness are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Other factors affecting the onset of an eating disorder include the influence of media and diet culture, a history of trauma, and stressful life transitions and certain personality traits such as perfectionism.[4] Eating disorders occur across the gender spectrum, and people identifying as nonbinary or transgender are particularly at risk. Dieting for weight loss increases susceptibility to the development of these conditions. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the prevalence of eating disorders has increased dramatically as social isolation, job losses, financial insecurity, and uncertainty about the future have created a fertile environment where eating disorders can develop and thrive.

In Canada, wait times for treatment of eating disorders are unacceptably long—months or even years. Treatment programs are usually located in large urban centres, creating barriers for people living in remote and rural areas. Only when people become extremely ill are they eligible for inpatient treatment. People with serious eating disorders are at high risk for suicide, and difficulty in accessing services exacerbates this problem. Since the start of the pandemic, many hospital-based eating disorder treatment programs have cut back their services, deploying personnel to other areas of need. Many of these programs were slow to transition to a virtual format, leaving a critical gap in services.”

Learn more about what family physicians can do to help via BCMJ.

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