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What’s the relationship between rising food prices and eating disorders?

A concerning trend emerged from Canada's Food Price Report 2024: Despite soaring prices, Canadians spent less on food last year, raising concerns that they may be coping by reducing either the quality or the amount of food that they are buying. The potential longterm repercussions of this behaviour are even more concerning, considering that living under food insecurity has been linked to heightened rates of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and disordered eating behaviors such as fasting and laxative use.




Let’s examine just how rising food prices can exacerbate two hallmark eating disorder characteristics: a general preoccupation with food and cycles of restricting, binging, and purging. 



Preoccupation and intricate rituals around meals


Imagine what a luxury it is to not obsess over your next meal — no worries about what you will eat, or how it will affect your body. This luxury is becoming increasingly elusive as Canadians are being forced to think harder about their dietary choices as a matter of financial necessity. These circumstances can negatively impact anyone’s relationship with food — especially those who are recovering from or vulnerable to eating disorders.


Currently, parents and guardians may be struggling at the intersection of budget constraints and the need to put food on the table. Those in recovery from or vulnerable to eating disorders may be facing symptom triggers and challenges in keeping up with their recovery meal plans. Even those who are financially comfortable may be thinking twice about buying treats or dining out. 


Rising food prices can create internal battles where food is at the forefront of one’s thoughts and day-to-day planning, and people are forced to create intricate rituals surrounding meal planning and consumption to cope. The constant worry over the affordability and availability of nutritious food can reignite a sense of unease and loss of control — feelings that are often mitigated through restriction of food intake. To this effect, this preoccupation with food isn't solely about hunger; it's also about control. When external factors, like escalating grocery bills, make essential nutrients seem out of reach, individuals may resort to restricting their food intake as a means to regain some semblance of control over their lives.


What starts innocently, perhaps with a decision to cut back or to exercise to counteract their intake of less nutrient-dense foods, can snowball into full-fledged disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms. This behavior is particularly concerning for those recovering from eating disorders, as the added stress of food scarcity can trigger a relapse.



Cycles of restricting, binging, and purging


The impact of rising food prices on people’s relationships with food and their bodies manifests most starkly in the enforced cycles of restriction, binging, and purging.


Enforced by rising prices, individuals may initially restrict their food intake, choosing less expensive and often less nutritious options. This intentional or unintentional restriction, however, is not sustainable — it can lead to episodes of binging, when food becomes available or when pent-up psychological and physical hunger overrides all constraints. In fact, studies have found evidence of the “feast-famine” effect, a natural tendency to binge after periods of food scarcity.


The aftermath of binging can lead to purging, driven by guilt and the overwhelming need to regain control, further entrenching the individual in the cycle of their eating disorder.


This pattern is not merely a reflection of individual choices but a stark illustration of how external factors like food prices can deeply influence personal health and well-being. For those in recovery or those predisposed to developing symptoms of eating disorders, the constant tug-of-war between scarcity and excess can challenge their resilience and recovery progress.



Rising food prices: A cause of eating disorders?


While it's tempting to simplify the relationship between soaring costs of food and eating disorders, the reality is far more nuanced. Disordered eating patterns are influenced by several biological and environmental factors, ranging from genetic predispositions to societal phenomena like diet culture, social media, and COVID-19 isolation. 



A more productive discussion around rising food prices in Canada might have to do with this: we’re seeing more support for the evidence that eating disorders are not a choice, nor are they a disease of the privileged few. 


Despite surrounding myths, eating disorders are serious conditions that arise from factors outside of one’s control, such as inadequate nutritional access (something that disproportionately affects lower-income households). This evidence also reframes the conversation around eating disorders, highlighting them as not just a mental health issue but also as a consequence of socioeconomic circumstances that require systemic intervention. From the pervasive influence of beauty standards to the economic conditions that limit access to nutritious food, we must confront a wide variety of factors that contribute to eating disorders.




A note from our team


There are many reasons why eating disorders go unaddressed. As we navigate the complexities of this issue, it's crucial to approach the conversation with sensitivity and understanding, acknowledging the multifaceted nature of the challenges every individual faces in their relationship with food, especially in periods where circumstances dictate food choices rather than personal agency.


If you or someone in your life is struggling with eating disorders, we invite you to reach out to us to ask questions, share part of your story, and determine if this is the right place for support.


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