Opinion | The pandemic has thrown our eating habits for a loop

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The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically affected the ways in which we consume and shop for food.

By Remy Samuels, Staff Columnist

The global shutdown has infiltrated almost every aspect of life we used to know, and our eating habits are certainly no exception. From barren shelves at the supermarket to a surge in demand for food delivery services, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically affected the ways in which we consume and shop for food.

Of course, everyone has different relationships with food, and the pandemic has affected people’s eating habits in very different ways. Whereas some have resorted to cooking more meals at home and perfecting their banana bread recipes, others have looked to apps like UberEats and DoorDash to have their meals delivered right to their doorstep. But for people who struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with food, particularly those with eating disorders, the lack of accessibility to certain foods, as well as spending long periods of time at home, can be detrimental to both their mental health and eating habits. For these reasons, it is important that we are gentle with ourselves and our bodies at this time and not put too much pressure on “taking advantage” of the extra time we may have in quarantine. 

A recent edition of the International Journal of Eating Disorders conducted a study looking at 1,000 people in the U.S. and the Netherlands and how quarantine has impacted their eating disorders. Phillipa Hay, a mental health expert and professor at Western Sydney University in Australia, wrote about how the “peculiarities of COVID-19” can be particularly damaging for those with eating disorders. For instance, she said for people who suffer from anorexia nervosa, staying at home can make them feel even more isolated — both physically and emotionally. A lack of access to certain foods and brands they are comfortable with can have a negative impact on their mental state.

Hay also said not leaving the house can have implications for people with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. If there is no way to distance oneself from food at home, and there are limited options at the supermarket, it can trigger destructive behaviors, such as hoarding food and increased binging. For people with eating disorders in general, even a slight disruption in their daily exercise or lifestyle routines can be harmful.

An article in Scientific American details the story of a woman named Rosey from Melbourne, Australia, who has lived with bulimia for more than a decade. She said when mandatory lockdowns began in Australia in March, her anxiety worsened because her daily routine was completely obstructed.

“I’m single, I live alone, my family lives in another state, and I’m not able to see friends,” she said. “To have everything I knew and had control over, including how I managed my illness, ripped away has been one of the hardest things.”

With many group therapy sessions cancelled and in-person counseling transitioning to telehealth, these changes can be very unsettling for certain patients and ultimately impact their recovery process. As a leading researcher on the study, Hay said it found increased lapses and relapses for people with eating disorders, as well as increased anxiety and concern about their mental and physical health due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Michelle Konstantinovsky, a woman who has been living with anorexia for over 20 years, wrote an article in Vogue about how quarantine has affected her disorder. Although she has not experienced a full-on relapse or fallen too deep into old destructive behaviors, she said insecurities related to her body image have resurfaced because she’s spending more time alone.

“The truth is, mandated social isolation and an unprecedented amount of time with my own thoughts have reawakened old patterns and behaviors I’d hoped were long gone: more intense scrutiny of my reflection on every trip past the hallway mirror, and workouts that have slowly crept up in length and intensity for the sheer reason that I have all the time and none of the excuses to cut them short,” Konstantinovsky said.

Because a lot of people are experiencing more time in their schedules, as well as just sheer boredom, this means more time for self-criticism, and potentially unhealthy eating habits— whether that be depriving oneself of proper nutrition or eating excessively.

Righteous Caldwell, a sophomore legal studies major, said he has found himself eating less often than usual during quarantine.

“I really only eat once a day now,” Caldwell said. “I pretty much just lay in bed all day and when I feel like I’m hungry I’ll get up and eat something. But I usually don’t eat three meals a day. It’s usually one big meal and then maybe I’ll have a snack later.”

Caldwell also mentioned feeling bored and lacking motivation at this time, which has affected his eating habits. He said the recent emphasis on becoming healthy and fit on social media is definitely something he has noticed but that it has not impacted his eating or exercise habits too much.

“I saw a lot of people deciding to become vegan and were using the time to work out more,” Caldwell said. “I normally workout anyways, but a lot of the gyms were closed so I didn’t exercise as often. The motivation was there, but it was the access to these things which was the problem.”

But for many people, social media has had a major impact on their mental health at this time. In her article, Konstantinovsky talks about how she tries to stay off the Instagram explore page, which is filled with “fitness influencers and diet tips.”

It almost became a trend on social media this summer to achieve a “quarantine glow up” with at-home workouts like the pushup challenge (or “see 10 do 10” challenge) and celebrities and influencers sharing their workout routines and “what I eat in a day” on Instagram and TikTok. With everyone having more time to scroll through these apps, the pressure to attain a certain body image could really damage a person’s mental health and make them question their own eating habits.

I even found myself trying out the Chloe Ting two-week shred challenge because seemingly everyone else was doing it. It’s one thing to implement a daily exercise into one’s routine, but it becomes dangerous when the end goal is to achieve a certain body type. Everyone’s body works differently, and a certain exercise that might give one person washboard abs after two weeks may not give the same results to someone else.

Overall, the pandemic has thrown everyone off course in some way, and it takes time to reevaluate and figure out the best ways to maintain a healthy diet under the new circumstances. But it is important to acknowledge those with eating disorders and complicated relationships with food and to be wary of the content and messaging we are posting on social media. Let’s be kind to ourselves and others at this time

Write to Remy at [email protected].

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