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Stop Obsessing Over Gaining the 'COVID 15'

A pandemic is no time to obsess about your diet.

by Gretchen Brown
April 13, 2020 | Health

This article is part of Rewire's Coronavirus: Information You Can Use series.

Some mental health professionals say the pandemic we’re experiencing could be considered a “collective trauma.”

Folks are losing jobs. They’re worried about contracting a deadly virus. And many are quarantined alone due to social distancing guidelines.

But on Instagram, a deadly pandemic is just another opportunity for weight loss.

One well-known fitness influencer advertised a “Coronavirus Survival Guide,” promising to teach folks to “manage stress eating while getting in the best shape of (their) life.”

An instagram post featuring a woman on a beach with a caption about quarantine weight loss. REWIRE PBS Health COIVD 15
For many folks, controlling their eating habits has always been a coping mechanism.  |  Credit: Instagram

“It’s quarantine glow up time,” another wrote.

This isn’t just coming from influencers. Many folks are sharing memes about gaining the “Covid 15” (a reference to the ‘Freshman 15’) or saying they need to “social distance from their refrigerator.”

“What I’ve noticed is that this whole thing is highlighting people’s disordered relationships with food,” said Caroline Dooner, author of “The F*ck It Diet.”

For many folks, controlling their eating habits and body size have always been coping mechanisms, Dooner said.

And in a time when so many people feel out of control on a broad scale, it’s no surprise that these behaviors are ramping up.

“Wellness culture has convinced us that if we just ‘follow this plan,’ we will be safe from illness,” she said. 

“That is so much of what diet culture really is, assuaging our fears of illness and mortality.”

Scarcity is traumatic

According to Google’s “Trends” platform, web searches for “How to lose weight” typically peak in January, then fall rapidly. But they’ve currently skyrocketed back to January frequency.

Aside from studies that show dieting doesn’t work (not even when packaged as a ‘lifestyle change’), there are plenty of reasons why right now, during a pandemic, is not an ideal time to start.

Namely, calorie deprivation can put extra stress on your body and weaken your immune system. A pandemic is not a great time to have a weakened immune system, and there’s no magic diet that is going to protect you from the virus.

A tweet about quarantine weight loss. REWIRE PBS Health COVID 15
For disordered eaters, feelings of perceived or imagined food scarcity can be traumatic.  |  Credit: Twitter

“People are scared and vulnerable right now,” said Michelle Vina-Baltsas, an intuitive eating coach

“The last thing they need is to feel bad about gaining weight, being ‘lazy’ for not exercising or using food to comfort themselves when that may be exactly what they need.”

But as bad as a time it is for folks to diet, it’s also a difficult time to get off the diet train. 

Disordered eating is often associated with food scarcity, and worsened during times of food insecurity. 

Intuitive eating teaches that unlimited access to food is the key to healing your relationship with it. But COVID-19 has left empty grocery store shelves across the United States, and social distancing guidelines advise limiting grocery shopping to once a week. Unlimited access isn’t possible.

“For disordered eaters... feelings of perceived or imagined food scarcity can be traumatic,” Vina-Baltsas said.

“Because it reminds them of dieting, deprivation or not having enough.”

Give yourself grace

Emotional eating might happen during this time, for one reason or another. The best thing you can do to deal with it? Don’t beat yourself up about it.

“That actually puts us into a cycle where we are more likely to seek out food for comfort,” Dooner said.

“Stress eating is actually a more effective ‘drug’ the more we diet, because we are literally being rewarded more for eating.”

We might blame binge eating on the food, but it’s really more about that cycle of restriction and guilt. 

Instead of looking to diet culture for a strict COVID fitness routine or quarantine diet, listen to your body.

Nutritious food and moving your body can be a healthy part of self-care. But self-care isn’t yelling at yourself for taking a day off or ordering out.

“You also might have trouble finding motivation to do much of anything right now, because it's taking a lot more emotional energy than you realize just to get through the most basic motions of your day,” said Jennie Steinberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“This is not failure or a lack of willpower; it's a hormonal response to a very stressful situation.”

Even if you’ve never experienced any mental health issues, there’s a good chance you could be experiencing some symptoms right now. 

And if you already live with mental health challenges, the coronavirus pandemic might make it harder to deal with them than normal.

Steinberg recommends giving yourself grace through all this. 

“You're a complex and multifaceted human person who is so much more than the size of the body you're in,” she said.

“There's no morality to being thin and fit. You have worth exactly as you are, or even 19 pounds heavier.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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