It feels like more people are more afraid of gaining weight while self-quarantining than of getting coronavirus.
In the hours before I started my coronavirus isolation, I went grocery shopping. Like many others, I was in survival mode, grabbing what I needed for myself and my partner.
I didn’t think twice about the quantity until I sensed annoyance from the people waiting in line behind me. “I’m sorry,” I said with shame, teeing up my lie. “I’m getting food for me, my partner and my neighbor who just had a baby. She can’t shop for herself right now, so I have to do it for her.”
I was so embarrassed that everyone thought I was buying all of this food for myself. I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder for about eight years. This grocery shopping, layered with the fear of running out of food and the ostensibly unlimited virtual workout options appearing in my Instagram feed, turned up the volume of my eating disorder.
Self-quarantine was going to be hard for me, and it triggered feelings and factors that help an eating disorder breed: stress, anxiety, pressure, a lot of food and a feeling of scarcity.
“There are many aspects of the very unusual life patterns that we are now being asked to follow that change the way we eat,” says Evelyn Attia, director of the eating disorders program at Columbia University Medical Center. “For someone who’s vulnerable, these kinds of changes can make things harder.”
Someone with an eating disorder is going to be worried about their weight during this time, but it is actually how they escape from an emotion, like fear or shame or guilt, says Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, who works with the National Eating Disorder Association.
“The behaviors are powerful when you’re afraid. So it’d be very natural in this time of fear because the danger of the virus is here now, so even if you’ve been in recovery for a while, all these well-worn habits or survival instincts kick in,” Zucker says.
Attia stressed that under these circumstances, there may be a lot more emotional eating for people, especially those who are vulnerable to eating disorders. A loss of routine can also be catastrophic.
Joanie Baumgardner, 33, has never been diagnosed with an eating disorder but was put on Weight Watchers as a young teen and identifies with having had disordered eating behaviors. While recovering, the San Diego resident says she’s been diligent about curating her social media feeds to get rid of “thinspo” or “fitspo” content. Once social distancing kicked in though, it felt impossible to escape: Everyone is posting meal plans and diets.
“I saw one fitness instructor post ‘Don’t gain the covid-19 pounds,’” Baumgardner says. “It made me really indignant.”
La Vida A. Johnson, 35, lives in Alexandria, Va., and says she’s been restrictive with food in various disordered ways for the last 25 years. She saw someone post about diet teas and weight goals when self-quarantining starting going into effect.
She says she is trying to keep things in perspective.
“I’m still eating whatever I want and reminding myself that food doesn’t have morality,” she says. “This is a life-altering historical moment so I don’t need to feel guilty.”
Attia said that with society being asked to stay home, it’s only natural to look at social media more than ever before, making it difficult to untangle and make sense out of far too many messages about how to eat, stay fit, take care of oneself and exercise in an appropriate way.
Justine Roth, a certified eating disorder dietitian, says that when anyone sets expectations about weight loss or eating healthy, food can take on a life of its own, so when we’re all stuck at home focusing on it, it’s going to do that twofold.
Roth suggests focusing on being an active participant in your choices around food. If you eat an entire sleeve of cookies in one sitting, accept that you did that.
“Giving food that much power is not helpful,” she says. “Larger portions is fully normal now and validating that emotional eating sometimes does serve a purpose. This is indefinite. We don’t know how long it’s going to last, so adapt the mentality of doing it within a conscious place.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or text “NEDA” to 741-741.