Amidst the overall alarm and anguish that we are all experiencing due to the pandemic, COVID-19 has highlighted fears around food and eating. Some of us are stuck at home with bountiful pantries, distressed by the abundance of food. Others are struggling with lack of access to food, or deprivation stemming from shortages and limitations on purchasing. Diet culture–which makes us fear food and eating–has inserted itself front and center, profiting off this hysteria. How many jokes about the “Quarantine 15” have you seen? I, for one, have seen far too many.
(As an aside, these jokes are never funny. Not during quarantine, not ever. They perpetuate weight stigma and fat-shaming.)
An Unexpected Hurdle in Recovery
For those struggling with eating disorders, this can be an especially difficult time. The desire for a sense of control might drive disordered thoughts around food. With fewer distractions from food and body, urges to use disordered behaviors may be heightened. We know that eating disorders thrive on silence and isolation, and many patients may not have their usual social support system, or may not have access to their usual treatment team. Recovery is incredibly challenging on its own, and COVID presents a whole new set of hurdles. An article published in the Journal of Eating Disorders highlights the various ways the pandemic may be exacerbating eating disorders, and calls for an international mental health response to support those struggling (Touyz, 2020).
Diet Culture’s Fear-Mongering Tactics
It’s not only those with eating disorders who are at risk during these times. Diet culture is so pervasive, that a huge portion of the population is entrenched in fear around food. COVID has forced many of us to forgo our usual structure and daily routines, and diet culture has co-opted the situation: it teaches us to distrust our bodies and our intuition around food. It teaches us that without exerting limits, restriction, and control (or, perhaps, without buying whacky supplements, powders, or shakes), that we will inevitably gain weight. The horror.
But What if my Body Changes?
First of all, I challenge you to question your beliefs and assumptions about gaining weight (or about those at a higher weight, period). Second, weight changes are a natural, normal, inevitable part of life. Your body may be adapting and changing to literally get you through a pandemic. If you were to gain weight, is a change in your body size really the worst thing that could happen?
Getting Through the Pandemic
I am here to tell you this: you don’t need to “do it all”. You don’t need to eat “perfect” during quarantine (what is “perfect”, anyway?) You don’t need to become a fitness guru, or take up running, or start doing yoga. Right now, your only job is to take care of yourself and get through this incredibly difficult situation. Given the chaos and its effect on those with and without eating disorders, the most important thing we can do is be understanding and practice self-compassion.
This means practicing flexibility and resilience. This means reminding yourself that you’re doing your best, with the goal of keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. This means keeping yourself fed and nourished, without buying into diet culture’s traps. This means trusting your body throughout quarantine, and knowing that this distress—this pandemic—is temporary.
A Few Words of Advice
- Consider eating every 3-4 hours, regardless of hunger cues. We know that anxiety and distress can dampen hunger cues, but your body still needs to be fed.
- If a lack of structure and routine are exacerbating disordered behaviors, go into each day with a plan. Consider roughly scheduling your day, and anchoring meals and snacks around various activities.
- If you struggle at mealtimes, consider tuning in to @covid19eatingsupport on Instagram. Here, a HAES-aligned dietitian or therapist hosts live eating support sessions every hour.
- For more information and materials around managing disordered eating, check out our [resources] page.
- Consider meeting with a dietitian for additional support. Here at Lori Lieberman & Associates, we are working virtually to help meet the needs of our patients.
Touyz, S., Lacey, H. & Hay, P. Eating disorders in the time of COVID-19.
J Eat Disord 8, 19 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-020-00295-3