As COVID-19 prevention methods continue to disrupt daily life, related stressors and anxiety persist and, in some cases, manifest in damaging eating habits.
To avoid the “three Cs” — closed spaces, crowded and close-contact settings — people are spending more time at home, even after the lifting of Japan’s state of emergency. Teleworking contributes to a sharp decline in incidental exercise, like walking to the station or around the office. Months of eating in, meanwhile, can lead to overindulging, excessive snacking or even food apathy.
The problem isn’t limited to Japan. In the United Kingdom, 1 in 3 people surveyed by researchers at King’s College London reported that lockdown had led them to overeat, or consume less healthy food than normal. In the United States, the term “quarantine 15” refers to the 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) one can expect to gain during lockdown.
For many, the outcome of all this is weight gain, poor body image and low mood.
“People can feel the shame of not doing exercise, the shame of our bodies getting bigger and the shame of not cooking every night to provide nutritious, amazingly varied food for their families,” says Sarah Furuya, founder of Sarah Furuya Coaching. “People should not feed into perfectionism,” and instead opt for “good self-talk,” such as using kind words to refer to yourself rather than negative ones.
Billy Cleary, clinical director at mental health nonprofit organization TELL, agrees that self-compassion is vital during this time. People, he says, need to “give themselves permission to not always have it together” and remember that others are also struggling with similar feelings.
During this pandemic, people are turning to “comfort, distraction and control,” Cleary says. When we add uncertainty — which almost always increases anxiety — and boredom to the mix, and remove social interactions that make us accountable, people can lose “a sense of regulation” and spend a lot more time eating or engaging in sedentary behaviors.
On the other hand, social isolation can result in people losing weight, even if they haven’t been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, says Aya Nishizono-Maher, an adviser at the Japan Association for Eating Disorders (JEAD) and professor at Meiji Gakuin University. In one case, a high-performing student neglected sleeping and eating to concentrate on her studies over fear she wasn’t doing enough by distance learning. In another, a woman always ate out to gauge how much to eat by watching others. When eateries closed, she lost her orientation. “For people who always need outside reference (for how to act appropriately), it’s very difficult to stay home,” Nishizono-Maher continues.
Among patients, long-held food habits have been disrupted, says Nishizono-Maher. They may no longer be able to get their “safe” brand of food, or may be overwhelmed by their excessively stocked larder.
In a survey of 278 people in April and May by JEAD, about one third of respondents diagnosed with anorexia said they had decreased food consumption, while more than half of those diagnosed with bulimia reported increased vomiting and use of laxatives.
Furthermore, patients have been forced to confront difficult interpersonal relationships or work situations they previously avoided by focusing on eating. More than 40 percent of respondents reported worse insomnia, 55 percent reported greater anxiety and 70 percent reported increased depression. Nishizono-Maher says this is because eating problems are only the surface issue.
According to Cleary, social connection has a big influence on ensuring quality mental health — for all of us. “When we’re isolated, alone and engaging in behaviors that are not healthy for us, the shame really piles on,” he says. “The more we can touch base with others in our lives that we care about, that we love, (the more) we can confirm with those interactions that we are cared by them and loved by them.”
One coping strategy is to work on embedding positive habits into your routine. “Stress could make you reach out and eat whatever is closest to you, and sugars could feel like a pat on the back,” says Tokyo-based nutritionist Sheeba Majmudar. “But the good news is that health starts in the mind.”
Simply creating a structure of three meals a day and some snacks can be empowering. Majmudar says small steps are key, from searching for a recipe based on ingredients in the fridge to food planning for one or more days. Starting off by cooking only one meal a day and mixing healthy store-bought dishes with self-prepared meals can make things easier, as can getting children involved.
Those whose physical activity has dropped significantly due to the pandemic might consider reducing portions, but avoid eliminating food groups, she adds.
Paul Stewart, a mind, body and spirit trainer at Light Body Training, also advocates maintaining balance, and suggests incorporating snacks with carbohydrates, protein and fat to keep blood sugar even.
Taking small, easy steps to boost daily well-being, rather than focusing on grandiose long-term goals, can also be beneficial. “Sometimes if we try to be positive when we don’t feel positive, it creates more pressure on ourselves. You can go beyond that positive-negative pendulum swing with self-acceptance,” Stewart says.
Nevertheless, for those with eating disorders professional support may be needed, particularly if COVID-19 exacerbates their conditions. But for some patients, the pandemic “may be a good trigger to change their lifestyle,” Nishizono-Maher says, adding that moving home for university students actually exposed their eating disorders in some cases, prompting them to seek help.
Ultimately, people shouldn’t feel shame that healthy eating or exercising has become more challenging, says Furuya, who likens COVID-19 to an app running in the background of the mind. “We have a limited amount of energy,” she says. “With so many COVID-19-related concerns to contend with, go easy on yourself.”
Anyone with concerns about eating or other mental health issues can contact TELL for support at telljp.com.