COVID and the Fear of Weight Gain

By Dawn White, RD, Dietitian/Timberline Knolls

You may have heard of the freshman 15.  The weight gain that has been associated with going out on one’s own and enjoying the food and beverages available on college campuses.  The pandemic now has its own term around weight gain – the COVID-15.  So the question may beckon – is this something we need to change or with which to be concerned?

It is possible that our focus on weight and the stigma associated with weight and weight gain may lead us to feel as if we are doing something wrong.  But fluctuating weight is something that is very normal and our bodies’ way of ensuring adequate energy sources and availability.  It is not uncommon in times of stress to notice an increase in our appetite as a way to have energy available for an anticipated crisis. This is not a reason to panic and the answer is not to try the latest diet, restrict food, or aim for weight loss.  Dieting has its own problems and is most often not sustainable, can decrease the amount of energy our body uses (lower our metabolism), increase our hunger and leading to weight cycling and rebound weight gain.

Our concern over weight gain, health, and fear of getting sick may also leave us more susceptible to the many ads that promote nutrition supplements, diets, or other methods to decrease the risk or severity of the coronavirus.  The Federal Trade Commission has sent out more than 400 letters warning companies of the inappropriate claims of products to “mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19”.  The Academy for Food and Nutrition recognizes that there is minimal evidence to suggest the use of nutrition supplements in place of a well-balanced diet.

So what does this mean for our relationship with food? The pandemic has presented us with many challenges. However, there have been some opportunities as well.   I have heard stories of people taking up a new interest in cooking and baking, having time to prepare meals and possibly eat with loved ones, trying new foods, and learning new techniques such as cake decorating.  In our often fast-paced society, it has given us some time to re-examine what is important to us and possibly notice the importance of food and balanced meals in our day.

We also know that food can be a source of comfort or something to do when we are experiencing boredom or uncertainty.  It may be a source of procrastination.  For example, “My plan is to clean out my closet today, but I think I will have a snack instead”.  There is nothing wrong with this; however, when food becomes our main source of comfort or begins to consume our thoughts throughout the day, it may become disordered.  This can also happen when avoidance of food or food groups becomes our main source of emotional regulation and control.

In working with individuals around their relationship with food, it is often apparent that we use food for more than just nutrition.  I feel there is a beauty in this.  We connect with people over food.  We pass down heritage and culture with food, we find pleasure and enjoyment with food.  I have said before, if food was meant only for nutrition, then why do we have such a wide variety of flavors, colors, texture, preference, and so much more when it comes to food?

There is a concern for food scarcity and “unhealthy” eating, but this also gives us an opportunity to practice creativity and even art in food.  We can explore new recipes, work toward noticing our hunger and fullness while also noticing the other needs that might be showing up at this time.  We can use what foods are available to us to nourish our bodies.  This can help us learn flexibility around food.  It might be a burger and fries from a fast food restaurant one day and a homemade meal of spaghetti with garlic bread and a salad the next.  I want to encourage all of us to trust our body’s ability to tolerate the flexibility of food and weight and remember we are all doing the best we can to navigate the challenges that COVID-19 has brought us.

It may be that you are noticing a relationship with food that is moving away from intuitive to a sense of finding control or comfort during this time.  Intuitive is the concept that we are listening to what our body needs and honoring it, trusting that our body has the intuition to help us navigate food.  I encourage you to once again to have flexibility.  If you are concerned about what is showing up for you around food, consider talking with someone you trust and/or your dietitian.

If your relationship with food is becoming disordered.  There are different approaches that help to heal relationship with food.  Depending on your needs, a meal plan may help give some routine and structure to your eating while continuing to nourish your body.  I always encouraged moving away from weight as the focus of your changes.  When we use weight as the focus, it can lead to disordered behaviors that do not help our health, both physical and mental, in the long run.  If you notice that your relationship with food is becoming disordered, consider the following:

  1. Eating every 3-4 hours. While we aim to eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full, there are many times that circumstances, feelings, and more can interfere with those cues.  Keeping to a routine of eating regularly can help to give our body and mind the nourishment it needs to function well.
  2. Aim for a variety of food groups. We often hear this push to get adequate fruits and vegetables.  Yes, these are important, but just as important are sources of carbohydrates from grain groups (breads, rice, pasta, legumes, etc.); proteins (meats, soy protein, cheese, eggs, etc.); and fats (oils, butters, nuts, seeds, etc.).  These provide the energy and so much more that our bodies can use.
  3. Eat mindfully. How often might we notice that mindless eating?  Maybe it is walking by the refrigerator and grabbing a snack because we are bored, or sitting in front of the TV and not noticing the taste or feeling of the food.  Being mindful can help us enjoy and find satisfaction in the foods we eat.  Some ideas to include here are 1) Give attention to your food.  Notice the feel, smell, taste, and texture of each food as you eat.  Engage in the environment around you, but also be intentional about bringing your mind back to your food. 2) Pause in the middle of eating a meal.  Notice what your body may be saying.  Is it still hungry? Full? Remember it takes your body several minutes feel full.  3) When you decide to eat whether it is due to hunger or another reason, do so mindfully.  This means noticing what feelings and emotions may be showing up for you, as well as the satisfaction of food.
  4. There is a place for movement in our relationship with food and body. Try taking time to move your body in a way that is enjoyable and helpful for your mind, body, and spirit. Moving away from calorie burning to meaningful, enjoyable movement helps us connect with and care for our bodies.  And, remember to provide nourishment for any movement you use.
  5. Finally, remember to practice self-care. Maybe a warm bath, or walk, a new hobby, or a conversation with a friend. This can help you refocus and shift from needing to control your weight, food, or emotions, to practicing caring for your body, mind, and spirit as a whole.

If you were in treatment at TK and received a meal plan at discharge, this may help to find some balance in your eating.  All of these steps above may feel overwhelming.  If you feel your relationship with food and body is out of balance, try choosing one thing to work towards this week. Maybe this week you aim to eat every 3-4 hours.   Resist the urge try to change everything at once and fall into all or nothing thinking.  Give yourself the grace and compassion needed to try some different things.

Whatever our eating style, current weight, or weight gain, there is no reason to panic! Practice some curiosity around your relationship with food and what needs you might be using food or the restriction of food to accomplish.

Give yourself plenty of grace and compassion as you do your best to navigate these difficult times.  This will allow you and your body to have the tools it needs to fight infection and maintain health, as well as providing the physical and mental energy to live your meaningful life.

*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*

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