How to Cope with Diet Culture During COVID-19

What is diet culture, exactly?

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, diet culture can be described as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of ‘health’.” (Christy Harrison, Anti-Diet).

While you may have heard the term thrown around as a buzz word, it really is much more than thin white “body positive” influencers on instagram. It is a social justice, public health, and cultural issue that profits off of people never feeling good enough or valuable in their own bodies. How to cope with diet culture during COVID-19 has been a challenge for a lot of us.

What is Diet Culture graphic by @bodypositive_mom
Graphic from @bodypositive_mom

Diet culture is still capitalizing on your insecurities, even during a global pandemic!

I’m getting more irritated now more than ever seeing increased fatphobic, discriminatory, and false messaging around higher weight bodies. I’ve seen “wellness professionals” doubling down on their promotion of fear around weight gain. Claiming how their diet/”lifestyle change”/workout program/supplement is the key to solving all your problems right now. And for them to sh*t on intuitive eating *queue Jillian Michaels*. God FORBID we focus on anything else but shrinking our bodies during a GLOBAL PANDEMIC!

On a more serious note, this messaging isn’t just coming from social media influencers/celebrities. It’s also from government agencies that we rely upon to keep us safe.

Weight Stigma and Medical Bias

It’s been extremely frustrating to see promotion of the misleading claim that higher BMIs are correlated with worsened health outcomes. Amidst this pandemic, there are claims that higher BMIs are a risk factor for worsened COVID-19 outcomes. These claims are backed by studies that are deeply flawed. None of them control for confounding factors such as weight stigma, quality of care, and racism. Which, are social determinants of health that are proven to worsen health outcomes. This includes chronic diseases that blamed on “lifestyle choices”).

This is exactly what happened in a 2016 meta-analysis of studies that originally claimed that higher BMIs were associated with increased severity of H1N1. When these studies were retrospectively reviewed and controlled for quality of care (i.e., lower weight patients received better quality of care), all of those associations went away.

This is just one example of how implicit bias gets people in marginalized bodies harmfully overlooked by medical professionals. Doctors are less likely to treat people of color and people in larger bodies due to their own biases. Patients being told that their body is the problem and/or are not believed, instead of being given a real diagnosis. This is how real, potentially life-threatening medical issues get overlooked, and how implicit bias leads to death of marginalized bodies. Are you starting to see how this is diet culture BS is all connected to social justice now?

I highly recommend reading Christy Harrison’s article about weight bias during COVID-19. She does an incredible job of breaking down weight science in an easy-to-digest way.

Coping with diet culture is hard enough in outside of COVID-19, but you may find it even tougher right now.

It might feel more overwhelming and confusing than usual to understand how to cope with the toxicity of diet culture. We’re living in an extremely stressful time with several unknowns ahead, and it’s totally normal to be out of routine. Meanwhile, diet culture lives on, pressuring us to “eat clean” and find ways to workout in order to maintain health. All during a time when we have less/minimal access to food, gyms / studios, and time outside and around people.

The truth is that while food/exercise play a role in our health (e.g., we need enough food to survive), there is so much more that goes into our wellbeing. Like our mental health, which is particularly critical in this time of social isolation, social injustice, and not knowing when this pandemic will end. Placing so much emphasis and pressure on food and exercise will likely exacerbate this already stressful time. None of us need that right now! Some aspects of health are also out of our control, like losing a job/housing, lower socioeconomic status, genetics, race. So, let’s focus on what we CAN realistically control.

Okay, but diet culture is all around me… how am I supposed to deal with it?

I want you to know that you have full permission to eat and move how and feel what you’re feeling. You are not alone in feeling confused, frustrated, isolated, or stressed right now. You deserve all the love and care you can spare, right now and always. I’ve identified 8 strategies that may help you navigate heightened stress and anxiety around your body, food, and exercise so that you can focus your energy on survival and self care!

1. Recognize that weight gain is normal and not all bodies function the same

Weight gain is NORMAL, especially when we’re completely thrown off of our day to day routine. It’s possible that you’re eating patterns have changed, not moving your body the same, and experiencing higher levels of stress. But beyond changes in routine, body diversity is real; we are not biologically built to be the same height, weight, gender, etc. Even if we all ate and moved the same, we’d still all look different!

I know how scary it can be to gain weight, but the reality is, we can’t really control it long-term. Not without participating in disordered behaviors. We all have what is called a set weight point. Meaning, your body works really hard to maintain within 10 to 15 pounds of the same weight range. And guess what? The more you try to control your weight through dieting/restriction, the higher that set weight points get. Yeah, ya heard it right. Remember when I told you that diet culture relies on diets not working? Mhmmm.

Some days will be better than others. Remember that being at war with your body is not going to help you get through this pandemic. When negative or anxious feelings arise about yourself, recognize them with curiosity, then let them go.

It may even help you to put the scale away, or get rid of it all together (like I did in 2017!). I also recently did a huge closet cleanse, getting rid of clothes that no longer fit me to make room for ones that do. For more tips on this point, see my post about making my workout routine more body neutral.

2. Ditch the diet, eat enough food, and consider adopting intuitive eating

Okay this is a three in one point but it’s all related. Aside from the fact that diets don’t work long-term, restricting food (both caloric intake and types of food) can be both physically and mentally harmful. Food deprivation can lead to a variety of issues, including disordered eating behaviors, mental distress, anger, fatigue, dizziness/headaches, among others. Right now more than ever, we need to eat enough food to give us the energy we need to power through our days. Given that you may not be able to eat in the way you normally would due to financial strain or lack of availability food, OR because you are eating foods that comfort you (which, btw, is a totally valid reason to eat food you may not normally eat) it’s a great time to experiment with new foods.

I highly recommend exploring/adopting intuitive eating principles, because you know what’s best for your body.* Recently, I’ve found a lot of healing in eating foods from my childhood that I had previously deemed “off-limits” (e.g., STRAWBERRY TOASTER STRUDELS!!! Seriously made my heart so happy). So give yourself permission to eat foods that serve your body AND mind. Your body knows what it needs; listen to it. By the way, you always have the choice to do this, pandemic or not!

*Depending on your relationship with food, its possible that you may benefit from working with a Health at Every Size (HAES) informed professional. This may be a therapist, registered dietician, or other a certified intuitive eating counselor. Btw if you haven’t heard, I’ll be certified in the near future! Look out from more details from me in the coming months, I’m more than happy to support you on your journey :). Use those links to identify someone who may be right for you!

3. Move your body in ways that feel good, but also give yourself permission to rest

Exercise and movement can be an incredible way to relieve stress and to feel empowered in your body, but not when it’s being motivated by changing your body. Don’t feel pressured to do workouts that your studios / gyms / favorite influencers are doing just because you feel like you “should”. If that’s your thing and it helps you, if you want to support small businesses in this way, that’s all cool too! Just know that you have permission to do absolutely nothing right now, and you do not have to “make up” for the food that you eat. Ever. And, not feeling safe to be around other people is a valid reason to not be working out right now.

You might have had to uproot your entire routine, which is an opportunity to discover new forms of movement that feel good! I’m about to try out Barre3’s virtual workouts, as they (from my minimal in-person experiences and from friends’ reviews) don’t promote diet culture bs. I’ve also found a lot of joy from slower movements lately; going on morning walks with Laney and RC, afternoon strolls while listening to podcasts after work, moving through virtual yoga flows, or even just organizing my house.

There are so many other forms of movement beyond your typical exercises! Gardening, running errands, cleaning up around your home, playing with kids and/or pets, you name it. Rest is also of vital importance, especially now, and a completely normal way to cope with heightened/sustained stress. Rest may be all your body needs right now, and that is okay. So make sure you’re participating in exercise / movement that serves you, and rest as much as you need to. It’s okay to be still.

"It's okay if your body changed because your routine has" -BodyPosiPanda
Graphic by @bodyposipanda

4. Perform a social media cleanse and lean in on the virtual HAES community

It’s probably long overdue anyway! I know I recommend this all the time, but unfollow people that make you feel any ounce of guilt about your body, the way you’re eating, or anything else that makes you feel bad about yourself. Yes, this includes your friends and family (you can also put them on mute so you don’t have to see their posts, if you don’t want to follow/unfriend!). It might sound scary to let go of these people you’ve grown attached to following, but just know there are several AMAZING people in the HAES community (including me!) that you can follow and won’t make you feel anxious or guilty in this wild time.

It might also be beneficial to set boundaries with social media altogether right now. You need your energy, and using it to compare yourself to others will deplete it even more.

5. Educate yourself on anti-diet culture work to get your facts straight when you’re interacting with people who are super engrained in diet culture

When I first realized this realm of diet culture and just how deep it goes, I found it extremely helpful to focus on educating myself. I had trouble trying to explain to family and friends how dieting is not the answer to our body dissatisfaction, nor is it the key to health and happiness. I couldn’t fully articulate how harmful diet culture in general has been for me/is for others, despite dealing with anxiety around it for years. Gaining myself in the vast body of research supporting intuitive eating and the harms of dieting really helped to ground me and prepare me for tough conversations around it.

It was truly overwhelming at first, but I’ve learned that there is an amazing community of weight-inclusive, fat-positive, Health At Every Size (HAES) podcasts, book, and accounts out there (e.g., @chr1styharrison, @foodandfearless, @mynameisjessamyn, @foodpeacedietician, @thefuckitdiet, @sonyareneetaylor). These have really helped me navigate feelings of isolation and fear around food / weight gain. I’d also recommend Lindo Bacon’s research page!

6. Self-reflect about your internalized fatphobia

As you’re taking in new information about diet-culture, the noise can get REAL loud. When I was first entering into this work, I found it helpful to simply start by listening to those more educated in this realm and identifying the beliefs I had about my own body and where they came from. Consider reflecting on where your fears about weight gain began, where your negative beliefs about your body started manifesting, what assumptions you make when you see fat people. If it feels overwhelming to dig into the research immediately, simply start by recognizing those internalized negative beliefs so you can begin unlearning them!

7. Identify coping and self-soothing mechanisms that work for YOU

I’m grateful to have the privilege of virtually working with a therapist, and I make it a priority to make sure I continue regular weekly appointments to work on my trauma. Outside of therapy, I have been finding myself having to get creative about doing coping mechanisms. For example, some days during this pandemic have felt REALLY hard to do a full 10 minute meditation, even though I know it will help me feel grounded. On those days, I gently ask myself to just do what I can, whether that means I do a 5 minute, 3 minute, or 1 minute meditation, or even just take 3 deep breaths.

Everyone has different coping mechanisms, and there are a ton you can experiment and choose from. I’d recommend starting with one that feels reasonable and easy to start with, and build up your toolkit from there. That could means planning out a gentle morning/night routine, starting a meditation and/or journaling/reflection practice, and/or trying different grounding techniques when you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or triggered.

8. Let go of self-judgment for how you’re handling it

Chances are, you’ve had some negative self talk or even guilt about how you’re going about coping in 2020. Don’t listen to that voice, you are doing the best you can in a god damn pandemic. It’s normal for previously processed trauma to bubble up, get annoyed with your quarantine partner(s), feel more tired than usual, eating differently than you normally would. It’s valid to feel self-conscious, lonely, or anxious.

Have some grace with yourself, you are SURVIVING. Be gentle with yourself, and make sure you’re doing something nice for yourself every. single. day. You are worthy of care and enough as you are right now.

"Now is a good time to lean deeply into the truth of your enoughness" ~Lisa Olivera
Graphic by @_lisaolivera
With Love,
Carly Marie
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