Why warnings about gaining weight during the coronavirus pandemic can be harmful for people with eating disorders
Warnings on social media and various articles about gaining weight during COVID-19 isolation could be triggering for people with eating disorders, and cause disordered eating patterns in others. (Photo: Illustration by Emily Nizzi/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
New college students fear the “freshman 15,” that often-mythical weight gain that comes with their first taste of freedom and the chance to choose their own meals and experiment with alcohol.
Now, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to isolation orders, advice has cropped up on social media warning about the “corona 15” or “COVID 25.”
Those “corona 15” warnings suggest that isolation and fear about the pandemic may lead to stress and boredom-induced binge eating. Articles offer at-home workout tips, healthy recipes and suggest picking up a new exercise routine or meal plan during all that newfound free time.
But for people struggling with eating disorders, warnings like that can trigger anxiety. People could actually start to restrict their intake rather than binge with all that extra time to worry about their weight.
Maddy Pritzl, a Green Bay resident and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities sophomore, has struggled with binge eating since she was in high school. Since then, she has contributed to National Eating Disorder Association’s Awareness Week and uses her platform as an Aerie brand ambassador to promote body positivity.
“COVID 25” warnings frustrate her.
“I think there’s a big push right now for everyone to be as productive as possible, and that’s just not realistic for a lot of people,” Pritzl said. “There’s just more time to overthink things in general, and pushing diet culture is really dangerous for people who might be prone to negative self-talk and body image.”
Brenda Velissaris, founder and executive director of Evolve Healing, a mental health clinic specializing in eating disorder treatment with branches in Appleton, De Pere and Oshkosh, said articles encouraging people to lose or maintain weight can trigger people with existing eating disorders, and potentially spark some disordered eating in others.
“Things like that aren’t helpful at all,” she said.
Isolation: where an eating disorder can thrive
Fitness centers are closed for the foreseeable future, grocery stores have cut hours and when they are open produce flies off the shelves. People now work and attend school at home. They don’t have to leave their houses, and while that helps some peoples’ body image improve, for others the isolation is the perfect environment for an eating disorder to thrive.
“Eating disorders are really manipulative,” said Shawna Doriot-Krienitz, a therapist at Evolve. “They’re grabbing this ‘we don’t have resources’ thing and running with it. It’s the perfect excuse, and we need to challenge that.”
Evolve Nutrition Director Becky Schmechel said urging people to exercise more because they have more time would “ramp up” issues for people who already wrestle with excessive exercise tendencies, which is a sign of an eating disorder.
Articles, like one published on the American Society of Nutrition’s website, say “minimize trips to the supermarket during the pandemic and eat healthy.” It instructs people to stock up but to avoid frozen meals.
People with eating disorders often follow a meal plan, made with their therapist to guide them through daily food intake. Such nutrition advice from articles could make people with eating disorders decide not to eat at all if they can’t get fresh foods, according to Schmechel.
That’s not an option, Evolve therapists stressed. Plus, Velissaris said your body can’t really tell the difference.
“Your head is putting judgment on the food,” she said.
Binging appears to be the most discussed topic during the pandemic on the various forums Velissaris is connected to. People diagnosed with binge eating disorder may eat a large amount in a short time or feel unable to control how often or how much they eat.
People may experience guilt or shame after a binging episode — and articles stressing healthy eating can trigger such feelings or make them worse, the Evolve staff said.
Evolve Program Director Nichole Baumgartner said binging is actually a “completely normal biological response” to the circumstances.
“If people are having a perceived lack of resources (and) our nervous systems are triggered into thinking we’re in a famine, hoarding and binging … is a normal response that does not have to warrant shame,” Baumgartner said.
The challenge of having to stay home
Data show eating disorders are prevalent among college-aged people. The Healthy Minds Study, conducted in 2018-19, showed 10% of respondents had been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
The National Eating Disorder Association said three out of 10 individuals looking for weight loss treatments show signs of binge eating disorder. That eating pattern commonly begins when people reach their late teens or early 20s. That was the case with Pritzl.
Managing food and her attitude toward it has not been a challenge despite a new routine after the pandemic forced her to move out of her sorority and back to her parent’s home earlier than expected. She tells her family what kind of food she wants in the house so she doesn’t feel restricted and inclined to binge.
But she understands that returning home can be “tricky” for many other people with eating disorders.
With a stay-home order in place, people are isolated and lack in-person support systems, which could allow them to “get away with” certain behaviors, according to Velissaris. They can eat less or more without people noticing or guiding them.
Evolve and other therapists Velissaris has spoken with are expecting an influx of clients as isolation ends — not just people with eating disorders but others, such as medical professionals, who are struggling after the crisis. She said when people get scared, they don’t make rational decisions.
“We’re going to focus on what we look like or what the scale says, or even what our home looks like, anything to make us feel like we have control again and reduce our anxiety,” Velissaris said.
Instead of fixating on one’s weight, Evolve staff suggests people practice self-care during isolation, and that doesn’t mean losing 10 pounds.
Velissaris suggested people fight the guilt they feel about food or exercise and keep up any routine they can; that’s particularly true for people with eating disorders.
“Some clients might have to have a little more flexibility with food, like if some of their safer foods are gone they may need to branch out a little,” Velissaris said. “But keep doing what you were doing. You don’t have to work out for three hours every day because you’re at home every day.”
Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 431-8396 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibbons or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ReporterSammyGibbons/.
How to get help
- Evolve has launched online support groups during the pandemic. Weekly Connections is a free support group offered Fridays at 11 a.m. through Zoom. Part of the goal with creating the group, Velissaris said, is to help employees who’ve been furloughed or laid off and cannot get the support they may be used to. More details are available on Evolve’s website, evolvehealing.org.
- Other organizations across the U.S. are offering online support groups and other services during the outbreak, such as the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.