How to cope with binge eating disorder during lockdown

  • Binge eating disorder (BED) is often hard to understand and diagnose
  • It can be as harmful as 'more recognised' eating disorders
  • Lockdowns can be especially challenging to those struggling with BED

During the Covid-19 crisis, many people's daily routines have been thrown into disarray – with far-reaching effects on mental health, even among those with normally well-managed conditions.

But what about eating disorders? For many dealing with these, a change to their daily routine can be challenging. We must bear in mind that diseases and conditions don't go away during a pandemic – especially not eating disorders.  

Let’s recap – what is binge eating disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a recognised eating disorder, often misunderstood because of the mistaken belief that if someone’s eating and not underweight, they don't have an eating disorder. However, with BED, nothing could be further from the truth.

BED is defined as the consumption of an abnormally large quantity of food over a discrete period of time, according to a previous Health24 article.

The physical and mental effects of BED can be as serious as those of other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

Binge eating disorder during a pandemic

An unprecedented event such as a pandemic can trigger many emotions that may spur someone with BED to overeat. The pressures of lockdown, financial distress and a change in your normal daily routine may exacerbate feelings that you would otherwise be able to manage – something which is hard to explain to those who do not understand the mechanisms of an eating disorder.

You may have been able to find solace and healing in an office environment, support from a group of friends, an exercise class, a set gym routine or even something as simple as a coffee order, or your favourite “safe” healthy lunch option.

Then you're suddenly unable to meet with your support group or visit your medical professional.

You might find yourself working from home, with family members and a variety of enticing foods around you. You may also be unable to go out and buy healthy food as often. Since eating disorders such as BED are based on secrecy, you might feel like you are constantly being “watched” by family or housemates – which only adds to the strain. 

And then there is the ultimate kicker in an eating disorder – control. With Covid-19, it may feel like you've lost control over your daily activities. This can be incredibly distressing for someone who normally thrives on control.

Counsellor Lynn Crilly, author of the book Hope with Eating Disorders, explains it as follows:

"Many people suffering from eating disorders want to feel in control," she says. "But with the restrictions to their everyday life now governed by outside forces, they may feel they are out of control, which will no doubt cause high levels of anxiety. And the media’s hyper-focus on body image and home workouts can also have a negative effect on how they feel about themselves, and again, feed into their distorted mindset."

According to Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of the Chelsea Phycological clinic, the lockdown and changes brought on by the pandemic may have stripped us of healthier coping strategies.

"For those with eating disorders, long periods of time spent at home are likely to trigger very specific anxieties, symptoms and ways of coping," she says. "For those who have found unhealthy coping styles creeping in, it's about finding healthier new ones that they can use during these current circumstances.”

Know the difference between binge eating and overeating

While one can occasionally overindulge to the point of discomfort and feeling sick, binge eating is a regular pattern, triggered by certain events or emotions. According to dietitian Dr Ingrid van Heerden, three or more of these symptoms will be present in a binge eater:

  • Two or more binge episodes per week over a period of six months
  • Poor control over eating habits
  • Eating faster than normal
  • Preferring to eat alone, or lying about eating to avoid embarrassment
  • Going to great lengths to hide the evidence of a binge, like hiding wrappers, containers and till slips
  • Eating up to the point of discomfort, stomach pain or vomiting
  • Feeling guilty, depressed or disgusted after eating
  • Exercising or purging after eating 

What can you do?

It’s vital to know that, even if you feel a deep sense of despair and lack of control over your eating, that BED can be managed and that there is help available. Here are some tips to help:

  • According to Crilly, communication is key. Even though you might not be able to physically see your normal support network, you can always talk to a trusted person about what’s going on as soon as you start feeling out of control.
  • Create a new routine with a sensible, regular eating plan. Plan your meals and groceries ahead for the week. If you are not in charge of the food or the groceries, inspire everyone to eat healthy, balanced meals by suggesting new recipe ideas.
  • Make cooking and meal prepping a fun family event.
  • Write a daily “reasons to stay in recovery” list when things get overwhelming.
  • Incorporate exercise into your daily routine but try to see this as an enjoyable activity and not a punishment. If walking in your neighbourhood brings more joy than a gruelling HIIT workout in your lounge, do it!
  • Reach out and seek help if your current coping strategy is no longer working for you. Sites such as Eating Disorders South Africa (EDSA) or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) offer valuable resources and contact numbers. 
  • Focus on activities other than food. During lockdown, we can’t simply go to a museum or an art gallery. While spending more time at home, we need to focus on activities that don't involve food.
  • Understand your triggers. Keep a journal about the emotions you experience during this time, and the things that trigger you to binge. This may help you stay in control when life feels overwhelming.
  • Take a break from negative news or social media – anything that triggers unrealistic body expectations.

Image credit: Kat Jayne from Pexels

READ | Body image in the age of social media: What I've learnt

READ | How to help a loved one with binge eating disorder

READ | 5 myths about eating disorders we should stop believing 

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