The choice between heating and eating will have a big impact on those suffering from an eating disorder, warns Emily Chundy

In the month of April this year, 4.6 million adults reported not eating despite being hungry because they couldn’t afford or get access to food.

The cost of living crisis this year has driven thousands to hunger, and with energy bills, rent, and basic necessities growing more unaffordable – and the news that inflation could reach an alarming 13% in October – this situation is only going to get bleaker.

For people with or recovering from eating disorders, however, not being able to afford a full range of nutritious food, treats, and healthy portions is more than unjust. It’s their worst nightmare.

Around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder at any one time, according to the charity Beat, though this figure is thought to have increased among young people over the COVID-19 pandemic, and many more will have a difficult relationship with food, or be in the stages of recovery.

The most well-known eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, with common characteristics being a disordered outlook on food, body image and health. Therapy, nutritional advice, and a specialist diet may be part of many people’s recovery. However, private therapy and a wide range of nutritious food come at a cost, which more and more are saying they can’t afford.

“The cost of living crisis can feel like another excuse not to challenge your eating disorder,” Katie, a 31-year-old woman from London, told Byline Times.

“I was previously lucky enough to have some private therapy for my anorexia, after I reached the end of my NHS-allocated sessions, but was still struggling.

“I had saved up during the various lockdowns and found it helpful… But it is looking increasingly unlikely [that I can start therapy again] as most of my money is going to have to go on bills.”

Katie added that the cost of living crisis is affecting her recovery in numerous ways, from affording therapy, to having to find groceries in different shops, to keeping warm (cold weather can be very uncomfortable for those who are under-nourished) as heating becomes increasingly expensive.

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“Recovery meal plans often involve a wide variety of foods, in quite large amounts, and this can be expensive,” she added.

“I am in a very privileged position compared to some people with eating disorders, who may be unable to work because of their illness and dependent on Universal Credit or PIP payments. Some may be struggling to afford basic food or travel to get to appointments. It’s incredibly sad.”

While the majority of people can still afford basic necessities including food, the current economic state means that even those who are managing financially are finding themselves having to dissect their budgets, create meal plans, and cut down on treats.

Valorie told Byline Times that she has found that the act of making meal plans and strictly budgeting for food – rather than feeling free to buy whatever she feels like eating – has been difficult for her and that monitoring the food she buys “somehow always devolves into old disordered eating habits”.

Though meal planning and budgeting are often seen as a good way to save on food, Valorie said for some people with eating disorders, meal planning can be “strongly tied to calorie counting”, and that the cost of living crisis has taken the freedom away from food shopping, instead provoking feelings of “guilt for spending money on food”.

She added: “My eating disorder isn’t really a problem most days, it’s mainly present in times of high stress.

“So the fact that grocery money triggered some weird feelings for the first time in years came as a bit of a surprise.”

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As well as the cost-of-living crisis exacerbating symptoms for those with existing eating disorders, evidence shows that the food insecurity some Brits are facing – including limiting meals to save money, or anxiety about the cost of groceries – could in itself lead to a disordered relationship with food.

In this sense, as more people face food insecurity due to bills increasing and inflation rising, the number of people experiencing disordered eating could actually grow, at a time when it is taking the NHS longer than ever to refer eating disorder patients for treatment due to spending cuts.

Katie added: “One of the biggest issues facing people with eating disorders is the lack of access to eating disorder services, especially services with adults… I hope the new Government commits to improving funding for eating disorder services across the board and quickly.”

She added that bringing back the £20 uplift in Universal Credit that was made available during the COVID-19 pandemic, or even considering “a small amount of food being available on prescription for people with eating disorder” could help to prevent those on lower incomes from being triggered into an eating disorder, or could help aid their recovery.

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, said: “We’re concerned that the cost of living crisis could have a significant impact on people with eating disorders. For instance, we know that financial difficulties can heighten anxiety and distress, which could worsen an existing eating disorder or contribute to one developing for somebody who is already vulnerable.

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“Food insecurity may mean that people are unable to eat regularly, which can contribute to harmful thoughts or behaviours for somebody with an eating disorder… There is also a risk that people are unable to access the specific foods needed for their meal plan, which risks disrupting their nutritional recovery.”

He added: “The Government must do all it can to support those struggling, including those affected by eating disorders. We have already seen the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Beat providing three times as many support sessions between 2021-22 in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.

“The Government must invest in eating disorder services, and work closely with professionals and experts to ensure policies are in place to support those with eating disorders.”

The new Government has indicated that it will help with the cost of living crisis by capping the price of energy for households and businesses.

The cost-of-living crisis affects more than just energy bills, however, and over the coming months, the Government must prioritise not only ensuring that Brits never have to choose between eating and heating but allowing people to have the financial freedom to feel joy with every meal, rather than feeling guilt over yet another rising bill.

The Department for Health and Social Care was contacted for comment but had not responded by the time of publication.

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 beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Names have been changed at the request of interviewees

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