Opinion | Fighting my food shame is the biggest challenge of quarantine

By Sarah Connor, Contributing Editor

Let me state the obvious — the COVID-19 pandemic has brought massive changes into all of our lives, especially for college students. 

For me, a normal week before coronavirus was hectic, and I was rarely home. I was working two jobs, an internship and taking four classes, and my eating habits were suffering. I would get back to my apartment after work, riddled with exhaustion after only eating one or two meals per day. 

For some, being busy is how they regulate their eating habits — they might stay on a specific schedule, make breakfast for themselves and pack a lunch and snacks to take with them for the day. Unfortunately, this does not apply to everyone, and some people experience food shame — feeling guilty and angry at themselves for eating — on a daily basis. 

Now, I’m at my parents’ house, taking classes online and only working one job remotely. Life has slowed down, and it’s given me the chance to improve my spiraling eating habits.

Food shame can cause people to develop eating disorders, and dealing with it is a vital part of fighting that. Treatment for food-related guilt is different for everyone, and now is a good time to consider how you feel about eating and how you really should be eating. 

People who often feel food shame are more susceptible to developing serious eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Many people rely on routines to keep their eating habits intact, and when those routines fall apart, they can feel out of control. “Control” is an important word for people who experience food shame. When one aspect of life is out of control, we take control of our eating habits in unhealthy ways.

Personally, I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I have struggled with an anxiety disorder for most of my life. One thing that I have discovered through years of therapy is that my relationship with food plays out in accordance to my level of anxiety. When I am more stressed and anxious, I get more restrictive with my eating and I don’t allow myself to enjoy food in the same way. 

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, this kind of restriction is called “disordered eating,” and it can be a precursor to developing an eating disorder. The way I lived earlier this semester was not just “being busy.” It was a serious health problem that could have spiraled into something worse. I’m still experiencing the effects of it over a month after that lifestyle stopped. Fighting the food shame I have is important to prevent my habits from developing into a full-on disorder.

Now that I’m back in my hometown with my parents — one of which is a full-blooded Italian mother — I’m fortunate enough to have access to a fully stocked fridge and three meals per day, including delicious homemade dinners.

On paper, it sounds great. Unlimited eggplant parmesan, pasta and garlic bread is luxurious compared to the way I used to eat. However, in my first week home, I found myself avoiding breakfast and lunch since I knew I would be eating a big dinner. I might have a banana to keep from getting dizzy. I’d tell myself, “You don’t get to eat today until you finish your work.”

I realized that I was fighting against the very basic act of human nourishment. Though I was doing great as a 22-year-old student trying to build her resumé, I was leaving my body behind in the process, and that is a very dangerous thing to do. Had I not had the opportunity to slow down in quarantine, I would have just spiraled into even worse habits. 

I just needed to eat, though sometimes that is easier said than done. Psychology Today says that people with eating disorders are at a higher risk of relapsing or worsening their condition in this time of quarantine and self-isolation. This is due to a lack of in-person treatment and the increasing anxieties that come with a pandemic. 

Treatment may look different in the time of COVID-19, but it is still available. NEDA currently offers online support groups and forums, an online helpline and referrals to free or low-cost online therapy. Many eating disorder-specific clinics are still practicing through online formats as well, and you can find the right treatment for yourself on NEDA’s website.

Recently, I have been managing my anxiety and eating issues in quarantine by trying my best to stay active by going for walks and runs, keeping up with therapy through video chat, staying in touch with my friends and trying to stay on a schedule. Staying on a schedule never really worked for me before, but in quarantine, it helps to give myself a level of structure. I set an alarm so I can make breakfast and get started on my schoolwork. I try to have lunch between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. and then get out for a walk before dinner. Without structure, it’s easy to say “Oh, I’ll just eat later.”

Making foods that I know I will like is also a great way to pass the time and help me feel more secure with eating. Last week I made my personal favorite snack, fried pickles. It was enjoyable, and that is a word I very rarely associate with food and eating.

According to NEDA, if “thoughts about food, weight, exercise routine, body shape or size are taking a predominant role, seeking professional help for early detection is strongly encouraged.” So if you are feeling like I was before or at the start of quarantine, get help. It could make all of the difference in your recovery and mental and physical well-being.

I want anyone feeling the way I did to know that you are not overeating in quarantine. I know I’m not the only college student who lives life in a “don’t stop until you literally collapse” style, but you don’t have to do that. There is no shame in eating. Every living organism needs a way to sustain itself, and for us, it’s food. I ate some Oreos today, and they were delicious. Eating doesn’t just have to be for nourishment, we are supposed to enjoy it too.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA Helpline at (800) 931-2237