Coping with an eating disorder during the coronavirus lockdown

April 23, 2020

The coronavirus lockdown has changed all our lives drastically. But for people with eating disorders, the loss of routine, panic buying at supermarkets, and the influx of home workout routines on social media can trigger disordered eating behaviours and potential relapses.

And this week, a controversial BBC Two broadcast has sparked major criticism about the way food and exercise are represented in the media.

Coronavirus and eating disorders

Eating disorders often revolve around a need for control—and during the coronavirus pandemic, life feels more uncertain than ever.

Rebecca Quinlan has struggled with anorexia nervosa since she was 19 years old. She has been admitted to hospitals three times for her extreme weight loss. Each time, she was tube fed, and took up to a year to regain weight. Since being discharged from hospital for the last time in 2011, Quinlan has blogged about her progress, hoping to inspire others in their journey to recovery.

The coronavirus lockdown, however, has presented an unforeseen challenge to Quinlan’s mental health. When the lockdown first began, panic buying left supermarkets depleted. This meant that certain “safe foods”—in Quinlan’s case, crackers and cottage cheese—were more difficult to find.

The rise of diet culture

Social media has flooded with home workout routines and healthy eating hacks. There are TikTok planking routines, 5K run-and-donate challenges, and memes about gaining weight during lockdown. There is even a term for it: the “Quarantine 15.”

“I’ve found it very triggering,” says Quinlan. “I open my Instagram and it’s home workout after home workout. My head is just going mad with it.”

Adrienne Rennie, an ambassador for Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, explains that this focus on working out amid the crisis perpetuates the idea that eating healthy and exercising is all about staying thin.

“We really need to reframe what our food does for our body,” says Rennie, who is an eating disorder survivor and holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

Negative messages from the media

This week, BBC Two received major backlash after airing the programme, “The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories.”

On this show hosted by “First Dates” star Fred Sirieix and “This Morning”’s resident doctor Zoe Williams, diners arrive at a restaurant and eat a meal, unaware that behind the scenes, a team of fitness fanatics are burning off every calorie the diners consume.

“It made me so annoyed and angry and frustrated,” says Rennie. “I think the way the BBC have tackled this idea of being healthy is completely ridiculous.”

Extreme calorie counting, Rennie says, “is actually a very outdated practice and science... It’s not sustainable. All it does is create shame.”

In a statement, the BBC insisted that the diners’ calorie intake met the recommended amount needed for the average man and woman to remain healthy, and that the programme did not endorse calorie restriction below these levels.

Eating disorder charity Beat, however, revealed that their hotline for eating disorder support received three times as many calls as usual the night the programme aired. In addition, the charity has seen a 30% increase in demand for helpline services since the lockdown began.

Lockdown coping strategies

  • Cut down on negative content

    Leila Hobart, a certified fitness instructor and counsellor, has used her Instagram platform to spread body positivity during the lockdown.

    According to Hobart, the lockdown is a perfect time to cut out “whatever makes you feel rubbish”—whether that means unfollowing certain celebrities or turning away from reality TV. “I’m all about unfollowing people who don’t inspire you,” says Hobart.

  • Exercise for enjoyment, not punishment

    Exercise is about so much more than weight loss. Hobart encourages her followers to focus on doing exercises that they actually enjoy. “If you hate running, why are you going running? If you like doing yoga, do yoga—it’s just as good.”

  • Listen to your body

    “Don’t feel ashamed of your eating,” says Hobart. “We’re all going through a rollercoaster of emotions right now. Listen to your body in terms of what it needs. If you’re craving fruit and vegetables, go ahead and get fruit and vegetables; if you want some chocolate, have some chocolate.”

    And, as Quinlan explains, during a global pandemic, gaining a few pounds should be the least of one’s worries: “I’d much rather gain a bit of weight in lockdown and stay alive than get corona.”

  • Focus on the future

    “I’m constantly reminding myself that this situation with coronavirus and lockdown is short term, but if you give into your eating disorder, it’ll last a lifetime,” says Quinlan.

  • I've lost years and years of my life with an eating disorder. I want to be able to come out of coronavirus when all of this is over and pick my life up from where it left off, rather than go right back to the beginning again.

    - Rebecca Quinlan

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