Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting people affected by eating disorders, said it saw a significant rise in 901 helpline calls last December and January, with more than 400 people calling for support.

The registered charity in England and Wales provides expert knowledge, education, and training to health and social care professionals. It also supports and encourages research into eating disorders

Beat said that the focus on food over Christmas 2020 and the COVID pandemic added pressure on people with eating disorders, according to BBC.

Jo (Morgan) Whitfield, National Officer, Wales at Beat, said the COVID pandemic played a “massive part” in the rise of people seeking support last Christmas because they were separated from their friends and family. “That has been really difficult for people,” she said.

Whitfield explained that the “uncertainty about different restrictions” could affect somebody with an eating disorder.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Marc Williams of Cardiff University said that Christmas “at the best of times is difficult” for many people with mental health disorders.

He said, “But with those with eating disorders, because of the focus of the festivities on food, it’s especially difficult in many ways.”

“And then, with the pandemic context, anything that increases stress levels will intensify the eating disorder and any restrictions on your activities will make it harder for some people to engage in those activities they would have found relaxing or that might have helped distract them,” he added. “It’s a perfect storm.”

Dr. William noted, “The social element of eating with other people can be quite threatening because of the fear that people might comment on someone’s eating – how they are eating, how quickly they are eating or how little they are eating. It can be difficult, and those can be triggers for some people.”

Dr. Menna Jones, National Clinical Lead of Eating Disorders in Wales, said before the pandemic, experts had been seeing a rise in the number of people with eating disorders, but lockdown restrictions had “accelerated” the growth.

She noted the growth showed “quite a significant spike” among young people, adding, “There’s been an increased focus on weight and body image and health, which unfortunately some young people have taken to more of an extreme level of preoccupation.”

“I’m very concerned about this increasing rise in eating disorders and I hope that we’ll be able to manage the demand.” Dr. Jones said.

She also said that some areas in Wales have “very long” waiting times for eating disorder treatments.

Dr. Jones admitted although the Welsh government had been supportive in trying to help people with eating disorders, “we’re still nowhere near” being able to meet the needs of everyone. She said it is still unclear how many people in Wales are affected by eating disorders, adding more studies are needed to get a clear picture.