What is causing a Rise in Eating Disorders?


About 30 million people in the USA suffer from an eating disorder once in their lifetime. The rate of prevalence is even higher in countries like Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. Furthermore, during the pandemic, there was a rise in the number of average cases of anorexia per month. From 25 new admits in pre-pandemic times, the figure rose to 41 new cases in 2020.

Therefore, according to the statistics in recent times there has been an exponential increase in eating disorders despite the increase in awareness about mental health and comorbid eating disorders.

Additionally, orthorexia is a newly identified eating disorder which is associated with information shared on the internet resulting in self-imposed diet rules. These rules are practiced to an extent that disrupts normal routine.

There are many underlying factors that are associated with the rise in eating disorders. And the identification of these factors is important in understanding how to address the root cause of these disorders.

The Role of Media Ideals

Given that the media has become an important part of our lives, it has had a high impact on many areas of our life. A major chunk of media is social media and entertainment media through which we are bombarded with pictures and have ideals that are far from reality.

While media can play an important role in educating the masses about health topics, the role of entertainment media has just shrunk to entertaining the masses which often leads to harmful cultural effects. As a result, there has been a steady rise in eating disorders since the past few years.

According to research, the portrayal of obese and slightly obese people in entertainment media is quite negative. They are either shown as lonely characters or are subject to comedy because of their weight. As a result, the portrayals and the ideals being lean and tall has resulted in a rise in body dissatisfaction.

The reason for this rise in eating disorders in Asian countries in the current times is an increased influence of Western media which has long portrayed being overweight as a negative personality trait.

The Role of the Pandemic

This rise in cases of eating disorders during the pandemic was associated with a sudden change in the routine and an increase in depression because of social isolation. An economic recession and rise in unemployment also resulted in a reduced food intake which led to a rise in eating disorders.

Also, there were messages circulating about the pandemic weight gain because of a reduction in activity levels. As a result, adults and adolescents alike resorted to restricting caloric intake to make up for their loss of activities.

The uncertainty of the situation also gave rise to other mental health issues like depression. With anxiety and depression having a comorbidity with eating disorders, the pandemic was associated with a greater level of eating disorders. Some went to reduce their caloric intake and began to show symptoms of anorexia nervosa, while others resorted to binge eating which increased the non-nutritional caloric consumption which is a symptom of bulimia nervosa.

The pandemic also proved to be a tipping point for people who had had mental health concerns previously like self-esteem issues, anxiety and body image.

Socio-cultural Factors

Socio-cultural factors have proven to increase the risk of eating disorders. The victims are often susceptible to societal pressures which increase the mental health impact of their own body image. Societal pressures internalize the portrayal related to physical appearance which then give rise to symptoms of eating disorders like purging after eating, restricting diet, and binge eating.

Countries like Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea seem to have a higher percentage of people with eating disorders because of being culturally reactive. Therefore, it shows the impact of socio-cultural factors in mental health issues like eating disorders. However, eating disorders treatment awareness, as a vital factor of social improvement, is actively sought after in countries all over the world.

Seeking to raise awareness is, unfortunately, unrelated to achieving a healthier environment, as we witness the social media world emphasising artificially improved features rather than natural beauty.

The role of social media comes under the category of cultural reactivity. Sharing photos that are focused on fashion, beauty ideas, and promote a lower-than-average BMI contribute to eating disorders, However, more than that, cyber bullying and shaming increase the risks of developing eating disorders which co-exist with depressive symptoms.

Summing it Up

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and a newer type of eating disorder identified called orthorexia are associated with societal pressures, media portrayals, and a change in external circumstances.

The pandemic has given rise to greater body dissatisfaction because of greater media consumption, a rise in depression, and disrupted routines. Socio-cultural factors that include sharing ideals on social media, bullying, and cyber-bullying also gives rise to eating disorders associated with mental health.

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