You’re Not Alone if the Pandemic Has Made Your Relationship With Food Difficult and Confusing

For many of us, staying inside during quarantine plus the constant stress of living during a pandemic has triggered—or re-triggered—disordered eating behaviors. It doesn't help that memes and other media are sparking an unfounded fear of gaining weight at a time when anxiety is already running high. Here, intuitive eating coach, anti-diet dietitian, and 2020 Well+Good Changemaker Christy Harrison, RD, MPH, shares exactly how to cope if your relationship with food is stressful—not comforting—right now. 

COVID-19 is a public health crisis, the likes of which pretty much no one alive right now has ever seen in their lifetimes. We're scared, we don't know what to do, and we feel motivated to do whatever we can to protect our health. The fact that we live in a culture that is constantly pushing restrictive practices of dieting and exercise to confer "health" has made a lot of people turn to those kinds of behaviors right now—particularly restrictive eating.

Restrictive eating isn't health-promoting. In fact, behaviors linked to restrictive eating—like bingeing—can actually cause mental and physical stress that only add to the overall lack of control we feel in the face of COVID-19. This rings true of both folks with a long-standing history with disordered eating and those in recovery. Moments of stress like this one require a lot of coping skills, and people tend to fall back on old, tried-and-true ones (like restrictive eating) that they've internalized as opposed to newer, more adaptive ones (for example, writing a "can't control" list). Past behaviors flare back up, even for folks who thought their issues with food were long behind them.

Additionally, the widespread worry about gaining weight during quarantine has pushed people to embrace problematic eating patterns. That fear is being exacerbated by diet culture—a system that worships thinness (and equates it to health and moral virtue); promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher health status, moral status, or social status; and uses over-simplified labels for foods (like "good' and "bad"). Diet culture oppresses people who don't match up with the supposed picture of health and well-being, including larger-bodied people, people with chronic health conditions, and people who are priced out of its practices of being "healthy."

When you've internalized diet culture, it's very easy to tout many of its beliefs. You think that weight gain is bad when you link it to a moral failing. Media—and social media in particular—is making it worse. Influencers and headlines are encouraging the "no pain, no gain" attitude, and I think it's making people feel like they need to restrict. At the same time, the dubious notion that people in larger bodies are more at risk and more vulnerable to COVID-19 is spreading—without solid scientific research that adequately controls for confounding variables.

All of this leads to a perfect storm where people feel compelled to restrict their eating to retain control of their bodies and their situations. Instead of trusting their bodies to tell them how much food they want to eat, people think that they need to compensate for what they eat (like "earning" dessert with a strenuous workout), or that they don't deserve to eat as much if they're not moving as much. Related to that, too, is skimping on portion sizes, which is (in pandemic and non-pandemic times) something that I see as a hallmark of diet culture that's very, very subtle. Then when people restrict their eating all day, they often binge at night and on weekends, making them feel out of control with food. They feel like they're eating emotionally or eating when they're already full, then they reimpose restrictions to regain control. The restrictions lead to more bingeing... it's a vicious cycle.

You're not the one who's broken; you're not the one who failed. It's actually diets that fail.

We wouldn't even necessarily think to restrict our eating and try to shrink our bodies, though, if it weren't for the cultural mandate placed on us to do so. Many people have histories of trauma, of being teased at school; of being shamed by their parents, caregivers, doctors, or other authority figures. Disordered eating behaviors sometimes evolve in response to that trauma as a way of trying to cope that involves changing your body so that you won't be subjected to that stigma. That’s completely understandable in this culture, and yet people are not responsible for escaping weight stigma by shrinking their bodies; it’s really society’s job not to stigmatize people in the first place.

Stay-at-home orders have been lifted in many areas, but the effects of quarantine (and the chaotic effects of the ongoing pandemic) will likely linger for a long time. As you examine your relationship with food, having compassion for yourself in the face of all of this is really important. The tools of diet culture—our self-punishment, blame, and restriction in the face of bingeing—don't work. We see that it doesn't work from the research, and people feel that that it doesn't work in their lived experiences when they step back and really look at things. We need another way, and approaching food and eating with self-compassion has been shown to lead to better outcomes and promote recovery from disordered eating.

The easiest way for people to grasp self-compassion is thinking about how you would talk to a friend or a loved one in the same situation. Almost everyone I've ever talked with about this recognizes that they are infinitely kinder to other people in their life than they are to themselves. Soften some of the language you use with yourself. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt.

It's also important to recognize the diet culture cycle in yourself. Remember that restriction can drive bingeing and that it's a really natural, physiological response to the deprivation. Bingeing is not something to blame and shame yourself for. It's not a result of a lack of willpower. It's not that you did something wrong. Your body was taking care of you—even when you tried to exert all the willpower you could muster. You're not the one who's broken; you're not the one who failed. It's actually diets that fail.

If you can start to recognize that the guilt and shame that you might be feeling are actually systemic issues, that you're not alone in feeling these things, and there are powerful forces designed to make you feel these things, I think it could help you create some righteous anger that you can point in the direction where it belongs. Not toward yourself, but toward diet culture. This system tells you that, during a global pandemic, you should be policing the size of your body instead of caring for your mental health and that of those around you. And that's bullshit.

As told to Kells McPhillips.

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