Lots of people are on not-great terms with food right now. Here's what's going on, and how to deal.
By day four of sheltering in place here in NYC, it was clear that I was having some food issues during quarantine. Abandoning any semblance of a balanced diet or three square meals, I’d grazed my way through a jar of creamy peanut butter, a half-pound slab of dark chocolate, and, inexplicably, a three-pound bag of prunes (which, for some reason, I thought I’d need during the pandemic).
While I’m no stranger to a rocky relationship with food, this was requiring a whole ’nother level of mental occupation and emotional energy. And as I texted with friends who were also beating themselves up for the way they were eating, it became apparent I wasn’t the only one struggling with serious food issues during quarantine.
So I reached out to a few R.D.s to help me understand what’s going on here, and ask how they’re helping their clients having similar challenges right now get through it. They helped put these experiences in context, and provided some genuinely useful strategies for getting through it. If you’re struggling with food issues during quarantine, you might find what they had to say comforting and helpful too.
By the way, the strategies in this piece are intended for anyone who, during this strange pandemic time, is dealing with food and body image issues that interfere with their life—like restricted eating, anxiety about weight, or feelings of guilt and shame surrounding food—but don’t rise to the level of an eating disorder. If you’re in E.D. recovery, the general advice is to return to your treatment plan and reach out to your support team, Erica Leon, M.S., RDN, CDN, nutrition therapist, certified eating disorder registered dietitian, and founder of Erica Leon Nutrition, tells SELF. There are also a number of virtual support groups and free resources currently being offered. Check out this directory from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). And if you aren’t sure which category you fall into—the lines are often fuzzy—NEDA has a five-minute quiz that can help you figure out whether you might want to seek professional support.
It’s not unusual or uncommon to struggle with food right now.
First and foremost: It makes perfect sense for pretty much any unresolved or underlying issues you’ve got surrounding food, eating, and your body image to be coming out in full force right now, Rachael Hartley, R.D., certified intuitive eating counselor and founder of Rachael Hartley Nutrition, tells SELF. “The stress and anxiety and uncertainty of being in a pandemic can be triggering,” Hartley says. Periods of heightened stress like this one can activate and intensify our challenges with food, past and present, that perhaps were previously manageable or not as obvious, Leon says. When it comes to the often complicated and fraught history and nature of our relationship with food, “everything is under a microscope right now,” Leon says.
In difficult situations, we often find ourselves unintentionally reverting to (or relying more than usual on) familiar coping mechanisms, Jenna Hollenstein, M.S., RDN, certified dietitian nutritionist, nutrition therapist, and author of Eat to Love, tells SELF. This pandemic is not something we have the skillset for, so we’re all in survival mode right now, in many ways,” she explains. “If our knee-jerk reaction to stress or difficulty involves any certain kinds of thoughts or behaviors around eating or body image, those are the things that are likely to be coming up right now."
Plus, there’s the simple fact that stress can wreak havoc on your appetite, Leon says. Many people are not all that hungry right now, while others might be feeling more hungry than usual.
On top of the general stress of, um, everything, there are some particular circumstances of this pandemic that might be putting an extra strain on your relationship with food. The current situation is the perfect storm for bringing up food issues and disordered eating behaviors, Leon says. Let's talk about those.
Suddenly being surrounded by foods you usually restrict
For one thing, we’re stocking up on shelf-stable and energy-dense foods—which makes perfect sense from, you know, a life-sustaining, practical, and economical point of view, obviously. But some of us might view these foods—stuff like rice, pasta, and peanut butter—as “unhealthy” or only to be enjoyed in small quantities or special circumstances (or both), largely thanks to the food moralizing and restrictive eating behaviors we absorb by way of diet culture. “Those are the very things that a lot of people are usually avoiding or restricting, whether they have a diagnosed eating disorder or subclinical disordered eating like a lot of people in the mainstream population,” Hollenstein explains.
Lots of us have learned to manage our relationship with these “bad foods” by keeping them out of the house—a pretty common dieting/weight management tip.
So, as Hollenstein points out, it’s possible you didn’t even realize the extent to which you’ve made these foods off-limits for yourself until recently. Either way, now you’re in a position where you suddenly have large quantities of these foods on hand, which can make people feel overwhelmed, anxious, or out of control around them, Leon explains: “For people who are constantly on a diet and trying to keep their body at a certain weight, their body is in a restricted state and they have this deprivation mindset," she says. "Then when there is abundance around them, it’s very challenging.”
A loss of structure
If you usually go to work during the day, your meal and snack patterns were probably baked into that daily structure (breakfast at your desk at 9 a.m., grabbing a snack before the 4 p.m. meeting, that sort of thing). But now that many of us are at home, either working there or not able to work, we’ve lost that structure around when and where and what we eat, Hartley explains. That upheaval can be especially difficult for people who have rigid eating habits or restrictive food rules that were supported by the structure of their day. “All the routines and things [you might] depend on [to maintain the way the way you eat] are gone,” Leon says.
The threat of food scarcity
If unusual abundance of food is one extreme circumstance that’s triggering people, the looming threat of food insecurity is the other. While there are many people struggling to get enough to eat—both at any given time in this country, and especially in recent weeks—you also don’t have to be literally experiencing a food shortage to experience a sense of food scarcity psychologically.
“With all the uncertainty and how fast it feels like everything changes every day, the fear of what could happen tomorrow is creating a sense of food insecurity, regardless of whether it’s actually there,” Hartley explains. Particularly as states started to issue stay-at-home orders and people began to panic, you couldn’t look through the news or social media without seeing photos of empty grocery store shelves and talk of supply chain disruption, Hollenstein points out. And you might already have faced real limitations on foods you rely on going out of stock, sometimes without knowing when they will be restocked, if at all, she says. Again, not a life-or-death situation by any means, but an unusual enough circumstance to cause real distress for some people. And if you’re someone who grew up around or has experienced food scarcity in the past, the idea of not having enough to eat can be especially distressing, Leon says.
A change in exercise routine
For lots of us, the way we behave with food is intimately connected to how we feel about our bodies, how they look, and how we move them. And it’s very likely that your fitness routine has shifted in the past few weeks, with gyms and fitness studios closed, daily routines upended, kids staying home, or decreased motivation to work out. “We’re not able to be as physically active as we’ve come to count on,” Hollenstein says. “And feeling like you’re not getting enough exercise can impact your body image and your relationship with food—whether or not you feel like you even ‘deserve’ to eat as much [as usual].”
Here are some strategies for managing all this.
1) Give yourself permission to emotionally eat, stress-eat, or eat for comfort. It’s normal.
Emotional eating, stress eating, and comfort eating are incredibly common and natural human behaviors. “That’s just a really normal way of coping,” Hartley says—especially right now. “If there’s ever a time to emotionally eat, I think in the midst of a pandemic might be it,” as Hartley puts it.
“Food is comfort, and this is a time we’re all needing and looking for comfort,” Leon says. Hollenstein echoes this. “Many of us are...eating for feelings of safety and security, and those feelings are very hard to come by right now,” she says. “So it’s completely normal and reasonable and kind to ourselves to allow ourselves some comfort with some food.”
On top of the stress and longing for comfort, we may also have limited access to some of the coping mechanisms and comforts we usually can turn to, Hollenstein explains—like IRL social interaction or working out in a certain way. “If you feel like you have fewer resources right now, [eating] might be the one rising to the surface,” Hollenstein says. Leon adds: “If food is the first thing that's available and it's comforting you, it’s really not a problem. Sometimes food is the best option.”
2) Make sure you have other coping tools.
Emotionally eating, stress eating, and eating for comfort are not bad things in and of themselves that you need to avoid. “That [behavior] only becomes a problem when it’s something that’s really stressful for a person, and they're thinking about it all the time,” Leon explains, “or if it’s the only [coping tool] that a person has. Then it might be time to look at some other resources.”
The way Hartley frames it for clients is this: “Yes, emotionally eat, and let’s also think about what other things you can do to help yourself feel a little bit safer or more secure and manage your anxiety.” Here are a few suggestions.
“Journaling can be a really great tool,” Whitney Catalano, RDN, Food Freedom dietitian and body image coach, tells SELF. She recommends a journaling exercise to help you identify the inner critic that judges or shames you for your food choices. If we’ve been listening to that voice for a long time, it can become second nature, Catalano explains. Ask yourself, What is my inner bully voice telling me? Putting those thoughts on paper can help you get a little distance and separation from that voice, and begin to question what it’s saying and how truthful that is, Catalano says. (You might not even realize how mean it is!)
More generally, you can journal in bullet points and simple lists. “Sometimes I’ll just write, I am stressed, or whatever I’m feeling. Or I’ll make a list of things I’m anxious about,” Catalano says. “Just getting [those stresses] out of your body and onto paper so you’re not carrying it around in your head can be cathartic.” (Find more journaling ideas here.)
The key here is to use journaling in a way that relieves anxiety, instead of adding to your stress by making it a chore. “Sometimes people feel like they have to do it every day for it to count,” Catalano says. “But it’s okay to use your journal only for when you’re upset or stressed.”
“If you’ve ever thought about having a [mindfulness] meditation practice, this is the moment,” Hollenstein says. In mindfulness meditation, you practice observing your moment-to-moment experiences—bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts—without judging them, pushing them away, or getting lost following them. A regular practice can help you get in better touch with how you’re actually feeling, physically, emotionally, and mentally. That’s why “mindfulness is a wonderful tool,” for many people struggling with eating, Leon says, explaining that it can also help you learn to just sit with the difficult emotions that you may be trying to cope with through food.
Mindfulness meditation can also be helpful in the moment if our eating behaviors are reactive, Leon says. Say you’re not physically hungry but you have a strong urge to binge. Stopping, pausing, and meditating for just 5 to 10 minutes gives you an opportunity to make a more intentional choice, Leon explains. (And then you can still eat if you want to!) To get going, download a meditation app like 10% Happier or Headspace. “It can be hard for people [to get started], especially at this moment, so it’s helpful to have a voice talk you through it,” Leon says.
Keeping a list of things that always make you feel good
“Now is a time for taking care of yourself, any way you know how,” Catalano says. Have a list of self-care acts or distractions you enjoy. “There’s nothing wrong with distracting yourself using other strategies,” Leon says. She recommends activities that feel nurturing, including a few minutes of gentle movement (like yoga), a hot bath, getting some fresh air (if you’re safely able to), doing something creative with your hands (like drawing), or FaceTiming your BFF to see how they’re doing, or watching your favorite episode of a funny show. (Here is a list of low-lift suggestions for inspiration.)
3) If your appetite or eating feels all over the place, try getting back to eating regularly.
Providing your body with consistent nourishment is one of the most important things you can do right now for your physical and mental well-being.
While abandoning your usual eating patterns is seriously NBD if it’s working for you, chaotic eating patterns—whether you’re having trouble eating enough or in a cycle of bingeing and restricting—aren’t helpful if they’re just stressing you out more, Hartley says. Returning to some regularity may be a good idea if the way you’re eating is making you feel undernourished, affecting your energy levels, or making you feel crappy, physically or mentally.
Generally speaking, “Try to get yourself into the habit of eating every three or four hours,” Leon says, “because then your body will get accustomed and start to feel a little bit hungrier at those times.” You might try to mimic the routine you had before all this, Hartley says. If you used to have a snack at 2 p.m., for instance, Hartley suggests setting an alarm to have a snack or at least check in with your hunger at that time. Of course, you can tweak your routine so that it better aligns with the way your day flows now. “We want to leave room for being intuitive around food, but it can be helpful to try to get into a flow—while giving yourself a lot of grace,” Hartley adds.
4) Try a quick mindful eating exercise.
More mindfulness! “Sitting down to eat a meal and focusing on giving your body the food it needs to survive—that can be a really grounding act and a way to connect with yourself, even for just 5 or 10 minutes,” Catalano says. “Sometimes we get so caught up in our work or our diet that you forget to taste your food and to just appreciate what you’re eating.” You can practice intentionally paying attention to your actual experience before, during, and after eating with a mindful eating exercise.
You don’t need to take a lunchtime vow of silence, here—just a pause or two. When you sit down to eat, take a couple deep breaths and check in with how you’re feeling and how hungry you are, Leon says. You can also try bookending your meal with moments of mindful eating. “Pay attention to your first bite and your last bite,” Catalano says—the smell, color, taste, and texture of your food. “The first bite is important because it helps you connect with the food that you’re eating…. Then you can watch TV for the rest of the meal if you want! But then when you get to the last bite, savor it.”
5) Give yourself a friggin’ break.
The circumstances right now call for giving yourself plenty of flexibility, grace, and compassion. “I really just ask people to be kind to themselves right now,” Leon says. And Catalano advises, “Give yourself permission for your eating to be really messy and chaotic right now. The world is pretty chaotic, and it’s okay to just get through this no matter what you’re eating.”
Say you eat past the point of comfort and feel bad about it. “You have a choice whether you make it mean something or not,” Catalano says. Try your best to do what Leon is requesting all her clients to do right now. “Just take a deep breath and say, ‘It's okay. Nothing terrible happened,’” Leon says. “I really just ask people to be kind to themselves…. It’s okay if you're just doing the best you can right now.”
6) If you feel up to it, take this opportunity to learn more about your relationship with food.
Doing what you gotta do to get through this period is more than enough right now. Seriously. But if you’re feeling compelled to delve a little deeper into the stuff surrounding food and body image that’s become more clear to you recently—and the prospect of doing so doesn’t feel overwhelming or anxiety-provoking—you might consider following your curiosity.
“This might be an interesting time to look at and reevaluate your relationship with food and your body image for some people,” Leon says. “It [can be] an opportunity to see what has been working for you or not,” both now and before the pandemic started. As you become more aware of your behavior patterns and beliefs around eating and your body, Catalano explains, you might start asking questions about how your childhood or diet culture influence your relationship to food. (For example, maybe you were exposed to dieting at a young age by someone in your family, or are noticing how fatphobic memes your friends send you on Instagram make you feel about your body.)
If you’re interested in unraveling a fraught relationship with food and looking for a place to start, there are tons of great resources and books about diet culture, intuitive eating, and the anti-diet movement out there. Catalano regularly recommends Anti-Diet, by Christy Harrison, and The F*ck It Diet, by Caroline Dooner. You might also check out one of the titles on this list of books about food and body image.
If you want to talk to a professional (and are fortunate enough to have insurance and/or the resources to afford it), teletherapy or virtual sessions with an R.D. are great options at the moment. See some tips on finding affordable therapy here, a directory of certified intuitive-eating counselor R.D.s here, and a list of Health at Every Size experts (including both R.D.s and mental health providers) here.
Written by by Carolyn L. Todd
This article originally appeared on SELF.