Coronavirus Quarantine and Eating Disorders

The month of February brings us National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. For most of us, this is the first February that we will be spending in a pandemic.

If an eating disorder could choose its favorite environment, it could do no better than the stay-at-home orders issued in many states to combat the coronavirus. Fear over health? Check. Fear around food? Double-check. Social isolation? Triple-check. Combine all this with economic volatility and an international sense of dread, and eating disorder behaviors seem to have a big advantage over recovery. In short, coronavirus quarantine and eating disorders: it’s a perfect storm.

When life as we know it is suddenly upended, it is going to be difficult for most people. For those with eating disorders, who often tend toward greater rigidity rather than flexibility, it is especially challenging.

Food Availability: Both Too Little and Too Much

Empty Shelves and a Very Full Pantry

The current unpredictability of grocery store inventory can bring up the urge to both restrict and binge. When entire store shelves of pasta, eggs, and toilet paper are empty, it can trigger a deep sense of unease and a desire to hoard. Panic buying has been rampant, with many stores now limiting purchases of staple items. Scarce inventory leads to a scarcity mindset, which is not unlike the eating disorder voice or diet culture in general: “This food is hard to get, so get it all while you can!”

On the other hand, having a well-stocked kitchen can also ignite disordered eating thoughts. When food is the apparent enemy, being surrounded by it can feel threatening. It can set up a resolve to restrict eating in order to demonstrate control. It can create fears of bingeing and/or purging, due to easy access.

Foods Good for Sheltering in Place Are Often “Fear” Foods for Those with an Eating Disorder

When hunkering down at home for weeks at a time, shelf-stable foods like pasta, rice, peanut butter, and frozen entrees are standard. They are nutrient-dense and last in storage. However, these are often the types of foods that people with eating disorders may consider off-limits, or a “fear food.” While working with a therapist and dietitian helps broaden the list of tolerable foods, the process is usually done in an organized manner. Being suddenly faced with a pantry full of spaghetti and canned soups may be an unusual situation that can spike anxiety. However, it is important to remember that all foods fit into a nutritious diet. No food is “good” or “bad.”

Structure and Boundaries Help Break the Connection between Coronavirus Quarantine and Eating Disorders

Going from a busy schedule to long swaths of free time can open the door to eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Working or completing school from home can provide structure for days that would otherwise blend into each other. Even if you have no current work or school responsibilities, there are some other ways to add structure to life under quarantine.

  1. Eat regularly. Every single body deserves nourishment, even when less physically active than usual. You do not have to earn the right to eat. Also, for people with an eating disorder, hunger and fullness cues must be relearned. In times of stress, such as the current pandemic, those fledgling hunger and fullness cues may subside. Eating at regular intervals (like every 3 hours) helps ensure nutritional intake – as well as helps to regain awareness of body cues.
  2. Sleep regularly. Regular rest helps us feel more energized, of course. Sleep also helps with emotion regulation, which is an important part of eating disorder recovery. Try to practice going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, and put away devices and bright screens about an hour before bedtime to help the mind prepare for sleep.
  3. Carve out time for hobbies, reading, games, etc. But there’s no pressure to achieve here; it’s about relaxation and engagement. It is not necessary to learn a new language or find a new way to organize your closet during this time. Yes, there are many examples of people on social media baking 32 kinds of bread. You do not have to be one of them. If a nap sounds better one day than reading a chapter of Anna Karenina, go for it.
  4. Set boundaries around media use. There is now 24/7 news coverage of the coronavirus. While keeping up on news is fine, it is easy to get pulled into hours of consumption. This is not good for our mental health! Skim the news or set a time limit. The same is true for social media. Even amidst this crisis, diet culture lurks, masquerading as health information. Be wary of supplements to “boost” the immune system, or people obsessing about potential weight gain while they are sheltering at home.
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