Specialists say they’re treating more patients for eating disorders since pandemic began

Eating Disorder awareness week began Feb. 22
Updated: Feb. 24, 2021 at 6:42 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Louisiana’s first eating disorder specialist estimates her workload doubled soon after the pandemic began, indicating more people now require treatment for conditions like bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder.

Marian McGavran, now the state’s top-credentialed eating disorder expert, says the pandemic has made it easier for some people to succumb to their condition.

“Lots of people were not able to find food because others were stocking up,” the River Oaks hospital specialist said. “Or you had a lot of people who suffer from bulimia or binge eating disorder sort of stocking that food pantry so that they had an abnormal amount of food.”

McGavran notes that the Coronavirus forced more people to stay home, without peers to hold them accountable.

“If I believe this behavior works for me in some way, then my motivation might ebb and flow,” she said. “On a screen, I can potentially hide my appearance with a restrictive eating disorder by wearing baggy clothes.”

The pandemic also disrupted routines. McGavran says this “unstructured time” can act as a sort of trigger.

Moreover, the pandemic limited people’s ability to visit gyms and freely exercise, which can often affect how some patients perceive their own condition.

“We’ve seen a lot of compulsive exercise at home,” she said. “You might also see people who are wanting to eat in their rooms. With the pandemic, you see a lot of loneliness... Eating disorders thrive in secrecy.”

McGavran describes eating disorders as psychological issues that create physiological symptoms.

They carry a higher mortality rate than any other mental health condition, including depression. Only 10 percent of people who have an eating disorder seek treatment.

“When I started about 20 years ago, we were thinking eating disorders just attacked white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, adolescent females,” Marian McGavran, now an eating disorder specialist supervisor at the River Oaks hospital, said. “We know now, through research, is that there are eating disorders on every continent on the planet.”

Doctors are raising awareness for eating disorders, often undiagnosed and unrecognized, this week. Some patients say conditions like anorexia are more taboo than drug addiction.

“You can’t always diagnose someone visually. It’s a lot deeper than that,” McGavran said, noting that less than half of binge eaters are obese.

But there are some signs that might indicate a person has a problem.

“In all the eating disorders, you might also see a preoccupation or obsessive quality in thinking about food; counting calories, perhaps weighing themselves, constantly talking about food,” she said.

She says some anorexic patients frequently refuse food and don’t experience hunger, instead eating by the clock rather than when their stomach growls. Bulimic patients often rush to use the restroom after eating, and consume abnormal amounts of water toward the ends of their meals.

Binge eaters, perhaps the most common patient suffering from an eating disorder, might notice higher grocery bills or make more frequent trips to stock up on food.

“I’ve treated young women, as young as 16, with osteoporosis,” McGavran said. “Eating disorders crop up in periods of change, whether it’s high school to college, college to a work career, or even a marriage.”

“If you see something, say something... If you’re worried about someone, talk to them and listen.”

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