How the cost of living crisis is secretly fuelling an eating disorder epidemic
For young people with eating disorders, this economic climate means more suffering
TW: Eating disorders
Recovering from an eating disorder often feels impossible. It takes family support, expert intervention, extreme psychological effort and the NHS. And, thanks to the cost of living crisis, recovery is like screaming into a void. Eating disorder hospitalisations are up 84 per cent in the last five years, the BBC reported last May. While the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a warning this month that ED sufferers not responding to treatment are discharged early due to a “rationing” of care. Personal and public money to get help or help yourself is seriously lacking and it’s making people’s lives miserable— or putting them at risk.
‘If you haven’t got money it’s another reason not to eat’
Laura was 13 when she first started experiencing symptoms of anorexia, triggered by boys making comments about her appearance at school and feeling like she wasn’t good enough. When she started recovery more than ten years later at 27, healthy foods felt “safe” but are more expensive. “I went to buy a bloody salad the other day and I was spending around £15,” she says. “Everything is more expensive. If you haven’t got money, eating is bottom of the food chain…It’s another reason to not eat.”
Similarly, Zoe (who now works at the charity First Steps) initially experienced eating disorder symptoms at 14, which intensified ten years later when not eating became a coping mechanism for grief. “When I was in recovery, I was on a meal plan. So, obviously, I had to eat a lot of food to regain weight after restrictive eating,” she says. “I was having six meals a day. Three mains and three snacks. What the dietician put on the meal plan was fabulous but I struggled to afford to buy all the food. It adds up.”
‘It’s normal to skip lunch when you can’t afford to buy it’
It’s not only people in anorexia recovery who are struggling with the cost of living crisis. Zoe explains she’s worked with bulimia sufferers who are falling into debt because of the amount of food they buy to binge. “Binge eating is a coping strategy but it makes sufferers feel guilty because now they can’t afford to pay bills and then their self-worth plummets,” she says of the vicious cycle. “People are going into debt because it’s not as simple as ‘just stopping’. It takes time to heal these things.”
Comparably, exercise addiction – spending hundreds on the gym or boutique classes – that sees people prioritise working out over food, bills, or socialising and seeing friends, can take a big financial toll. “It can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming,” says Zoe of the compulsion. “It’s not as simple as just ‘give up your gym membership.'”
Currently, there are no grants or financial aid available for people in recovery from an eating disorder in the UK. And with one in seven people and a quarter of students skipping meals because of the cost of living crisis, disordered eating is becoming concerningly normal, making it easier to hide through the excuse that eating out with friends or getting a coffee is too expensive.
“We don’t even recognise disordered eating because it’s become a normality,” says Dr Suzanna Corciova, consultant psychiatrist at Orchestrate Health. “It’s ‘normal’ to skip lunch when you’re busy or can’t afford it. But if you have a pattern of an already unhealthy relationship with food, or are concerned about your body, it’s more than likely going to develop into disordered eating or could lead to an extreme situation.”
‘You’re going to pick paying your gas bill over getting help’
It’s not only the cost of food itself that’s posing a threat to eating disorder recovery in the cost of living crisis. Zoe explains that thanks to the hike in petrol, car park and public transport prices, even getting to psychology appointments can seem like a second priority. “And if you can’t access support through the NHS, the cost of private support is huge,” she adds. “If it comes to paying the gas bill or accessing private support because there aren’t local NHS or charity services— you’re going to pick the gas bill.”
Often, eating disorders are triggered by life changes that make us anxious and the cost of living crisis is uniquely worrying. “Research suggests that people with eating disorders can be negatively impacted by food insecurity,” says eating disorder charity Beat’s Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn. “For instance, feelings of stress and anxiety can be worsened by financial issues, which can exacerbate eating disorder behaviours such as restriction or binge eating. For those in recovery from an eating disorder, food insecurity and the increasing costs of essentials such as heating, cooking and commuting could increase the risk of relapse or make progress much more difficult.”
“Obviously, prioritising food or even just encouraging healthy eating helps,” adds Dr Suzanna Corciova. “But it’s difficult if you’re in recovery and you’re still having to work. If you can’t get to the end of the month, if you’re by yourself, if you’re renting, if you can only afford a room in a house with five other people and working two jobs— it’s a big stressor. You’re going to be exhausted every evening and lots of stress is difficult to manage when you’re in recovery. It needs a lot of support.”
‘You have one more chance to recover’
Because of increased NHS wait times, caused by staff shortages and lack of investment, adults with treatable eating disorders are dying before they can get help, the Independent reported in February. Those that do get help, are being “repeatedly failed” as they’re rushed out of treatment or told they have “one more chance to recover” after as little as a six-week therapy course, the Guardian uncovered.
“Recovery is a very personal journey,” says Zoe. “It’s very unique to the individual. Some people take longer to recover and you know what? That is, and should be, okay. Finding peace is possible. But recovery looks completely different to everyone.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to a charity like Beat or REDCAN UK. You can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.