Soaring costs are proving triggering for some people who have a complicated relationship with food
Grace*, 21, developed bulimia when she was still at school – but recently, she’s started experiencing symptoms of anorexia too. “It’s been an awful lot easier to justify eating less with the cost of living crisis,” she continues. “In my mental illness-addled brain, I can justify not eating because I’m saving money.”
An eating disorder crisis has been brewing for some time now. Hospital admissions for people with eating disorders in England have risen 84 per cent in the last five years, with the number of people being treated for eating disorders rising sharply during the pandemic, largely as a result of disrupted routines, social isolation, and higher stress levels. In March 2022, the NHS revealed that more young people than ever before were receiving treatment for eating disorders.
Now, the cost of living crisis is only exacerbating the issue. Inflation has soared, ramping up the cost of pretty much everything. The price of food has been particularly hard hit; recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that food and drink prices have risen by nearly 15 per cent over the past year.
As a result, millions of people in the UK – the sixth-richest country in the world – have been forced into food insecurity. Around one in seven adults live in homes where people have skipped meals, eaten smaller portions or gone hungry all day because they could not afford or access food, according to the Food Foundation’s latest data. Rising costs are even impacting people who are relatively financially secure, with many cutting back on treats, takeaways, or dining out.
This unavoidable preoccupation with food is proving triggering for many people who suffer from eating disorders. Many recovery meal plans are often incredibly varied and suggest eating something different every day, which is far costlier than batch cooking. Strict budgeting and meal planning may help with a person’s cash flow, but can quickly lapse into old, restrictive, unhealthy behaviours. Recovery from an eating disorder is essentially all about getting your freedom back – but it’s difficult to feel liberated when you can’t really afford the food you want to eat.
Like Grace, Yelena, 22, also suffers from anorexia. She tells Dazed that her tricky relationship with food began in childhood; growing up in poverty, Yelena and her family were often only able to buy junk food, which Yelena says left her “quite overweight”. She was bullied in school as a result, which she says “triggered something” in her and complicated her relationship with food. “I definitely have felt more prone to relapse with the cost of everything going up,” she says, adding that the price of her weekly shop has soared to around £100, which is only exacerbating her unhealthy thought patterns. “I don’t look after my health now in the same way that I did last year.”
“Research has indicated that food insecurity can make eating disorder behaviours worse in those who are already unwell or vulnerable, or contribute to a relapse in those in recovery” – Tom Quinn
Leading eating disorder charity Beat have reported that they’ve been dealing with an increased number of calls to their helpline over the last couple of months. “The cost of living crisis has affected countless people across the UK, and people with eating disorders could also be put at risk as a result,” says Beat's Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn.
“Research has indicated that food insecurity can make eating disorder behaviours worse in those who are already unwell or vulnerable, or contribute to a relapse in those in recovery,” he continues. “We also know that periods of stress and uncertainty can be a trigger, as we saw during the coronavirus pandemic.” Essentially, it’s no surprise that the prevalence of eating disorders is rising right now, given the anxiety caused by increasing living costs, unending political turmoil, and all-pervasive social instability.
No government could have really predicted or prepared for the global economic impact of Putin’s war. But regardless, the Tories were incredibly slow to react when the crisis arose, and they still aren’t doing enough now – in fact, they’re actively making things worse (in his 38 days in office, ex-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng did nothing but cut taxes for the mega-rich and crash the pound).
What can the government do now? Naturally, proper funding for mental health services is desperately needed to get wait times down and ensure that whoever needs care can access it. To this day, only 14 per cent of the health service budget is allocated to mental health, despite David Cameron calling for ‘parity of esteem’ to close the funding gap between mental and physical health services over a decade ago. This urgently needs to change, especially as long wait times for care can be massively detrimental to people in recovery.
But given our unique, present political landscape, it’s also vital that the government look to tackle one of the root causes of this increase in eating disorders: the cost of living crisis. The personal and political are irrevocably linked, and with better access to food and greater economic stability, it’s likely we’d see greater numbers of people with eating disorders recover, fewer relapse, and prevent those without preexisting issues with food from developing disordered eating patterns in the first place. Plus, given that eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than any other psychiatric condition, it’s imperative that the government act sooner rather than later, before any more lives are lost.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or at beateatingdisorders.org.uk