A common theme in the discussion about COVID’s effects is how the global pandemic affected our relationships with our bodies, and the food we eat. According to a 2022 study, nearly half of Americans gained weight after experiencing prolonged stress and isolation. COVID is not only about weight gain. For many others, COVID has fundamentally changed how we eat.
How has society accepted this fact and how does it affect our mental and physical health beyond bad-taste memes and coffee-shop conversations with good friends?
To start the conversation, Nicole Eikenberry (registered dietitian and founder Mindful Food and Motion) and Jillian Lampert (chief strategy officer for The Emily Program), were my contacts. Although they were both interviewed in Q&A format, their observations were insightful and rooted from real-world experience with clients and colleagues.
MinnPost – How have you seen COVID’s effects on weight and health at work?
People carry a lot of shame about their eating habits and food choices. It is very common to worry about being seen again after a body transformation. That anxiety is a constant with COVID. There was so much fear with the messages around COVID bodies. The fear of negative outcomes from COVID was heightened when weight and age were specifically mentioned.
Jillian Lampert says: It’s a mess. This is the short answer. In COVID, eating disorders have increased dramatically. This makes sense. We are subject to a lot of isolation, anxiety, and social media pressures about what we should eat and how to exercise at home. It really affects our relationship with food.
You felt anxious about COVID and became isolated. We were also seeing lots of social media posts like “Here’s a new recipe” or “Here’s some tips for working out,” which showed that there was no reason to not be fit, even though the world is experiencing intense trauma. Some of us found it too overwhelming. Every day, we see the Emily Program’s impact in the lives of those who attend.
MP – Do you believe early COVID isolation was a factor in how we ate?
NE: It all depends on how people viewed food before the pandemic. Clients who felt that they could not eat well in public places have told me they are happy to stay at home. People often believe that having others around them helps regulate their eating habits. They can’t eat well on their own.
People who have binging behavioursspan type=”font-weight 400 ;”>, Being at home with food all day removed the protection from being at work so they wouldn’t indulge in that behavior. It was impossible to be alone with food. Some people found this scary. Some people also found that being at home was more beneficial than living in a chaotic environment that doesn’t allow them to prepare food and spend their time cooking.
Many people found it difficult to stay at home. To top it all, many of us were constantly on Zoom. Zoom allows you to see yourself and others constantly. The added pressure of “Do they see that I am changing?” comes with Zoom.
MP: Zoom can be a nightmare. It is strange to see your face reflecting back at you all the times.
JL: We never looked in the mirror at our bodies all day before COVID. We didn’t go to church or meet with a mirror in front. Talking to someone in person can make it difficult to forget how you look. But when you talk to someone on Zoom, you are looking at a mirror.
It leads people to believe that they don’t look like they did. The question becomes, “Should these supplements help me lose weight or reduce wrinkles?”
MP: How about coming back to the world after a long period of isolation? MP: Does this change how we view our bodies and our relationship to food?
JL: It is so exciting to be together after all the time we have been apart. Instead of saying “It’s so nice to meet you again,” we instead say, “Have your lost weight?” This is all about body perceptions. It’s no wonder that people have such a bad relationship with food. The effect of COVID in our perceptions and relationships with food and body is something that I have never witnessed in my professional career.
MP: The reason for weight loss is not always good news.
NE: Many of my clients have experienced weight loss. Often, it was accidental or part of a serious condition like cancer or depression. Many people will tell someone “Oh my god.” They look great, but they are the most miserable they have ever been. It’s not enough to judge someone’s inners from their outers. You don’t always understand what a person’s body is doing when it changes.
MP: Have clients expressed concern that other people might notice the COVID-related changes in their bodies?
JL: During COVID, all kinds of people have experienced natural body changes like menopause and puberty. These are normal changes in life, but it’s like being back in the real world after two years of being inside a bubble. It’s possible to feel very exposed and anxious.
MP: What about anxiety? MP: Have you noticed that people have a tendency to change their eating habits when they feel anxious?
NE: Anxiety may manifest in your stomach. Hunger can be confused with anxiety. Eating can help you manage both. You can be distracted by eating and not see the real truth.
JL: Anxiety, isolation, and a decreased activity level can lead to people eating more often and being less mindful. Food is often a source for comfort. It is therefore not surprising that COVID sufferers ate more than they needed.
People assume that if their anxiety is decreased, they will be able to live a normal life, be more active and eat less anxiously, and that their bodies will return to the way they were before. Instead, diets are used to make our bodies go back because of all the pressure. This leads to people overeating and is back in the same boat.
MP: Many people are thinking about how the pandemic affected their bodies and the way they eat. Your services must be highly sought after. How do you help clients develop a healthy relationship to food?
ME: Many people come to me because of a problem with their eating, or with their bodies. I am not your average dietitian. I don’t tell people what they should eat. I am not the food police. I empower people to trust their instinctive knowledge of eating. I help people to understand their cues, regain them, and learn how to respect those cues. It’s a meaningful job.