During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in people developing eating disorders and other eating related issues, according to Hartford HealthCare.

Jenifer Manstedt, counselor at Counseling & Psychological Services and eating disorder coordinator, said she has noticed more University of Nebraska-Lincoln students reporting concerns with eating patterns and body image issues during the COVID-19 pandemic than prior to the pandemic. 

Indicated through CCAPS, forms that CAPS utilize to assess certain distress levels, there has been a slight increase overall with eating concerns, according to Manstedt.

Manstedt said the pandemic has increased isolation among people, which has either worsened pre-existing eating disorders or increased worry about food consumption and body image issues. The increased isolation has also increased access and time spent on social media, which can increase thoughts or worries about eating patterns or body image related concerns as well, according to Manstedt.

“That’s something that I’ve noticed in regards to talking with other students, but also have read a little bit about that others have noticed too,” Manstedt said.

Eating disorders are often a manifestation or other desire for control in response to a traumatic event, according to Marissa Pakiz, wellness services and nutrition education coordinator at Campus Recreation. Living through a pandemic can be traumatic for people and could put them at a higher risk for developing eating disorder behaviors, which could then lead to a full-blown eating disorder, according to Pakiz.

“Eating in response to negative emotions is something that we all do from time to time to cope with stressful situations,” Pakiz said.

Food is also something that people seek for comfort and to cope with stressful emotions, according to Pakiz. Manstedt and Pakiz said there is a difference between stress eating, emotional eating and an eating disorder that is more serious. 

Stress eating becomes more serious when an individual might notice that it is happening more often, happening for longer periods of time, the behaviors are disrupting certain areas of life or if it is causing the individual more distress, according to Manstedt.

Pakiz said feeling guilty after emotional or stressful eating often perpetuates preoccupation with food and can lead someone to restrict food intake, which then puts them at a higher risk for a binge and the cycle can easily continue. 

“Emotional eating really becomes problematic when food is our only or one of their only methods of coping with stress,” Pakiz said.

If a student is worried that they might have an eating disorder or if they are struggling with one, Manstedt said CAPS is a great resource for students to start out with.

“We want to be sure to support that student,” Manstedt said. “If they might need additional resources or services, we can get them connected to those resources off campus if that’s what would make the most sense for their needs and to best support them as well too.”

Pakiz said the best way to maintain healthy habits and a healthy relationship with food during a pandemic is to have multiple ways of coping with difficult emotions and situations. 

Also, students should surround themselves with positive messaging regarding food and body image, according to Pakiz. Pakiz also said students should unfollow accounts on social media that make them feel negatively about their body, promote weight loss for the sake of improving appearance, perpetuate diet culture messaging or promote restricting food intake and restriction of certain types of food.

Having conversations about eating disorders and body image issues is important and not talked about much, according to Manstedt. Manstedt believes the conversations around eating related concerns and body image issues are improving, but she thinks continued discussion about these areas will be beneficial for people who are struggling with these issues.

Manstedt said it is really important for people with eating disorders to have a supportive system in place, whether that is their peers, co-workers, family or friends. 

“An eating disorder can be very isolating at times, but we know having support is really key and if they have access to treatment, that’s also going to be really helpful too,” Manstedt said.