Like the perennial rush to get “swimsuit ready” come spring, we now have a new “diet” period to navigate: Post-pandemic season. And, just like all the others, it’s B.S.
Many Americans are concerned about the “COVID 15” or “quarantine 15” pounds gained, more or less (cutesy terms with toxic undertones). At least 71 million Americans have gained weight during the coronavirus pandemic and, as a result, 52% say they feel down about their appearance, according to a study commissioned by the biotechnology company Gelesis.
While it’s fine to adjust your weight if it’s necessary for your health, it’s more important to manage your expectations and cut down on any negative self-talk: We’re still very much living through a global pandemic. It’s perfectly normal for your body to change while enduring COVID-related stress.
“It is absolutely reasonable for food to be a comfort, especially during such a stressful time in our world,” said Jessica Sprengle, a licensed professional therapist who specializes in treating eating disorders.
Food can be a huge source of comfort. If you don’t know when you’ll be vaccinated, when it’ll be safe to see your parents again or how you’ll make your next rent payment, it’s not a bad or unnatural thing to turn to it.
“Food is not the enemy in these situations, and neither are the emotions,” Sprengle said. “How we view eating and emotions, especially together, is a larger part of the problem.”
“Not eating during stressful times is so rarely criticized or viewed pejoratively. Why is there criticism in the case of increased eating to deal with stress?” she added.
Sprengle said she regularly hears about weight gain worries, but it’s been amplified during the pandemic. Everyone seems to be fixated on losing the extra few pounds, she said.
“I have noticed a significant increase in inquiries for eating disorder services and in standing clients’ eating disorder behavior since the onset of the pandemic,” she said. “I would not be surprised if the continued emphasis on potential weight gain and comfort eating during COVID is a culprit.”
So, how do you get a handle on any weight-related stress you may be experiencing? Sprengle and other therapists and dietitians offer their best advice on how to stop fretting over weight gain and just live your life.
Show some self-compassion.
Sprengle stressed the need for self-compassion in these “trying times.” The pandemic has been responsible for upending our lives for nearly a year. Until more of us are vaccinated, COVID-19 remains a serious threat. You’re bound to feel a little shaky.
“Without access to resources our pre-pandemic lives afforded us, it can be challenging to be at our best mental health-wise, health-wise ... everything-wise,” Sprengle said. “We are all living through collective trauma, every day, and coping with that in all of the most adaptive ways can be incredibly difficult.”
Yes, we sometimes eat because it provides us comfort ― and that’s OK. If you’ve been hypercritical of how you’ve relied on food through the pandemic, imagine how you’d speak to a friend who’s done the same thing.
“Would you berate them for their appearance and any ways in which it’s changed? Probably not,” Sprengle said.
Don’t talk about “good” food and “bad” food.
Erase the words “bad” or “good” from your vocabulary when talking about yourself or your Postmates love affair, said Emmaline Rasmussen, a registered dietitian and holistic wellness coach.
“So frequently clients say to me, ‘Oh, I was bad this week. I ate a cheeseburger and fries!’” she said. “Guilting ourselves about our food choices doesn’t usually change our behaviors, and it robs us of the enjoyment of the indulgent experience, which can lead to further unhealthful food choices.”
Inevitably, we continue to seek out that enjoyable carb-laden experience we robbed ourselves of earlier (and probably act pretty hangry in the process).
“This is why I challenge clients to reframe and instead view an indulgent meal as an experience that they can thoroughly enjoy and then move on from,” she said.
Think about how you want to remember this time in your life.
Jenny Weinar, a therapist specializing in disordered eating and body image concerns, said to give some thought to how you would want to look back on these trying pandemic years. It will give you some perspective, she said.
“Do you want to recall being consumed by thoughts about your body and the fear of it changing?” Weinar said. “Imagine what you could do instead if you took back all the time, energy and money spent trying to control and manipulate your body size — the fullness and richness of the life you could live in alignment with your values rather than those of diet culture.”
Shift your mindset on exercise.
If you want to get healthy, that’s wonderful. Outside of eating better, movement will be key.
For this to be effective, you’ll have to shift your mindset, Rasmussen said. Instead of thinking, “Ugh, I hate this, but I guess I have to do it,” think about how good you’ll feel after you exercise and that huge endorphin rush hits you.
If you’re still not sold, there’s a trick Rasmussen uses that always gets her going.
“I also am a huge fan of tricking myself into working out by telling myself I’ll just do a five-minute workout ― or even that I’ll just put on my workout clothes and shoes! ― and that if I truly hate it, I can stop after five minutes,” she said. “Or if I put on my running clothes and sneakers and get outside and really don’t feel like running, I have full permission to go back inside and get on the couch.”
At least nine times out of 10, once Rasmussen is outside or is five minutes into an exercise, she keeps on going. “Sometimes we just need to get started to motivate ourselves to keep going.”
Most important, whatever exercise you do should be something you enjoy. If the idea of cycling or running for 30 minutes fills you with dread, don’t do it. Explore dance or barre workouts on YouTube, investigate a fitness app, pick up yoga or go for long walks with good music. Fitness shouldn’t be a punishment.
Think about why you eat.
Instead of wasting energy criticizing how much pizza you ate last night, give some thought to the role eating plays in your life. Are you eating chiefly out of boredom? Because you’re worried about losing your job and find comfort in food? Because you’d really like to see your elderly mom and food fills that void in your life just a little bit?
“When people chronically overeat, there are usually important and deep reasons that require compassionate exploration, not criticism or a new fad diet,” said Andrea Wachter, a psychotherapist and author of “Getting Over Overeating for Teens.”
Getting more introspective about your eating habits will allow you to make specific changes based on what you uncover. If you’re bored, trying picking up a new quarantine hobby (tie-dye, baking, perusing r/UnresolvedMysteries!) If you’re worried about your job, start sprucing up your LinkedIn account and peeking around for new opportunities so you feel like you have more agency in the matter. If you miss your mom, call her or set up a virtual game night once a week.
In other words, recognize that while food can be one coping mechanism in your life, it’s hardly the only one.
And when it comes to eating, pledge to be more intuitive about what you consume, Wachter said. Intuitive eaters rely on their internal hunger and fullness cues to tell them when, what and how much to eat. For the intuitive eater, the best diet is no diet at all; it’s simply listening to their body.
“When we feed our bodies non-restrictively and respectfully, offer ourselves compassion, speak to ourselves kindly ... food takes its natural place in our lives as nutrition and pleasure,” Wachter said.