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'It really increased the pressure on people': British Columbians impacted by disordered eating face challenges during COVID-19

Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness Week is on now until Feb. 7
Jessie's legacy
Jessie's Legacy, an eating disorders prevention and education program based in North Vancouver, has seen a 40 per cent increase in requests for support since the pandemic started.
While developing rigorous exercise routines and posting photos of gourmet home cooking on social media have helped many cope with the challenges of the pandemic, people living with an eating disorder have been extra vulnerable due to the isolation and heavy screen time associated with COVID-19, according to a Metro Vancouver-based eating disorders prevention program.

Jessie’s Legacy, a provincial program that provides education and resources to help prevent eating disorders and manage disordered eating, has seen a 40 per cent rise in requests for support and resources from youth, families and educators since the pandemic's start a year ago, says program manager Joanna Zelichowska. The program is operated by Family Services of the North Shore.

“Eating disorders are often the symptom of what’s going on in our lives,” says Zelichowska. “One way to exert control in their lives when the outside world is so chaotic is to overly focus on food and diet and feel like we’re regaining a sense of control by being preoccupied by that.”

Eating disorders revolve around a preoccupation with food, body image, weight, and appearance and can include clinical diagnoses such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa as well as disordered eating in general, which can include excessive exercising, fasting and “striving for perfection,” according to Zelichowska.

Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness in Canada, adds Zelichowska.

Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness Week campaign

A couple of factors have likely contributed to the challenges people living with disordered eating or a clinical eating disorder have experienced during COVID-19.

For one thing, when lockdown started last year and many families were stuck inside together for months on end, the loss of control and added stress of the pandemic compelled many of the hundreds of thousands of British Columbians living with disordered eating to revisit past behaviours, such as weight and shape preoccupation, yo-yo dieting or purging.

“We really saw an uptick in families wondering, ‘Is this kind of behaviour normal? Should I be worried?’” says Zelichowska. “I think people who noticed that they had a pre-existing troubled relationship with food or their bodies found that that increased.”

Besides the stress of the pandemic itself, our increased physical isolation coupled with a major bump in online interactions has likely contributed to more people requesting support from a program such as Jessie’s Legacy, she notes.

Depictions of rigorous fitness routines, meticulous meal plans, and productive lifestyles permeated social media, especially during the early days of lockdown, and this constant “highlight reel” portrayal has created unrealistic expectations that can increase self-criticism in people at risk of disordered eating, says Zelichowska.

“Social media was the only window out that we had to compare ourselves to what other people were doing,” she says. “It really increased the pressure on people.”

According to Jessie’s Legacy, eating disorders affect more than a million Canadians and approximately 135,000 British Columbians. Hundreds of thousands more British Columbians do not technically meet the diagnostic criteria for having an eating disorder, yet struggle with disordered eating and body image issues, adds Zelichowska.

It’s Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness Week until Feb. 7. In keeping with the importance of this kind of education during our increasingly online existence, Jessie’s Legacy’s awareness campaign this year includes an online toolkit. It features a self-assessment guide to gauge one’s relationship with body and eating attitudes.

Visit their website for a full list of resources and educational materials.

Family Services of the North Shore and Jessie's Legacy have also released a new podcast on how the pandemic has affected many people’s relationship with food and body image, and some of the reasons why.

“These disorders thrive in secrecy,” says Zelichowska. “You do not need to have a diagnosis in order to be experiencing really significant suffering or noting how it’s affecting your day-to-day activities.”