Scroll through Twitter or take a look at trending articles, and it’s clear that people’s feelings about food and body image are all over the place right now. The age-old “there goes my summer body” joke is reaching new heights. #Quarantine15 has been trending on and off for weeks. The headlines about healthy cooking and at-home exercise range from helpful to questionable to downright punishing.
I get it—we’re all looking for things to bond over right now, and body insecurities are, unfortunately, fairly universal. Anxieties are running high, and eating is a common response to stress. It’s natural to be a little concerned about how things might change if you can’t stick to routines. But frankly, all this fearmongering around food and quarantine weight gain is unhelpful bullshit, and it’s not something you need to buy into.
That’s not to say you’re bad for being worried about these things. We live in a fat-phobic culture that pushes all kinds of food and exercise rules on us, whether we realize it or not. But instead of beating yourself up about (very understandable) changes in your routine, consider using this time to establish a better relationship with food and your body by loosening the reins.
Comfort Food Is Your Friend
If you’ve been gravitating toward certain comfort foods and eating more than usual, that’s normal. “A lot of us use familiar coping mechanisms, such as eating, to help deal with anxiety,” says Whitney Catalano, a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating. “These times are unprecedented, so we turn to what feels safe.” Eating familiar food can bring some normalcy to a time that is decidedly not normal.
We use food as a source of comfort for several reasons. First, there’s plenty of evidence that highly palatable foods temporarily activate pleasure centers in our brains. Second, food is accessible. Therapy and expensive self-care habits are financially out of reach for many, and some inexpensive coping mechanisms—certain forms of exercise, time with friends and family, normal daily routines—may be off the table for now.
Catalano’s advice? “Let it be comforting. Let it be joyful. Let it be satisfying and nourishing.” As this quarantine progresses, you’ll develop new routines and other strategies for managing anxiety, she says, and you’ll probably start relying on food less.
Diets Usually Backfire
When you’re feeling insecure or anxious, dieting might seem like a great way to regain some control. “It gives you a purpose,” Catalano says. “It gives you a plan that is supposedly going to change your whole life.”
The problem? Diets don’t produce lasting results. A 2013 review in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass looked at existing weight-loss studies and found that virtually all dieters abandoned their diets and regained lost weight within five years. Likewise, an April 2020 meta-analysis published in The BMJ looked at 121 clinical trials studying different diets and found that while most produced weight loss and improved heart health at the six-month mark, none led to significant weight loss or health benefits at the 12-month mark.
Instead of changing your life for the better, restriction typically leads to overeating. “The more you obsess about what you’re eating or how much you’re eating, the more [you’re going to want to eat],” Catalano says. If you have a complicated history with dieting or food, you may feel especially out of control right now—boredom and stress could be the immediate trigger for overeating, but long-term restrictive patterns are the root cause.
Remind yourself that food isn’t the reason you’re feeling so uneasy right now. “The food is not the problem,” Catalano says. “The anxiety and the emotions are the problem; the food and the eating are the symptoms.”
It might feel scary to give yourself permission to eat whatever you want, but it’s the right choice. “Eating enough is the best way to support ourselves during a time like this,” says Heather Caplan, registered dietitian and host of the podcast RD Real Talk. “Stressing about whether your meals are healthy enough or macros are balanced or calories are in check may feel safe, but it’s not actually improving your health.” And don’t fall prey to any headline or company trying to sell you an immunity-boosting food or diet—no single food has the power to do that.
You’re probably moving less right now, which can be challenging if regular exercise is important to you. There’s nothing like being bombarded with existential dread and having nowhere to channel that energy. But you can still use physical activity as a way to deal with overwhelming emotions. “Try to incorporate movement into your day, instead of just structured exercise,” says Caplan, who works with athletes and is a runner herself. “We can absolutely use movement like walking, running, yoga, dancing, or even a virtual fitness class to help cope with stress and anxiety. Let it be a coping mechanism without also being a way to try and manipulate your body.”
“You don’t have to be following a training plan or hitting a certain mileage every week to stay healthy,” Caplan says. In fact, a few weeks or months off from intense exercise can be a good thing, especially for people who are used to rigorous workout regimens. “It will give your body time to relax and transition into a rest and recovery phase,” says Meg Furstoss, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of New Jersey–based Precision Sports Performance. “You may start to detrain a bit within two to three weeks, but we have this wonderful thing called muscle memory. Once you get back to your regular routine, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly your prior fitness level comes back, especially if you were very fit to begin with.”
If you’re feeling really uncomfortable about scaling back, now is a great time to examine your relationship to exercise. Caplan recommends getting curious about why you want to move: “Is the desire to walk or run triggered by a bad body image moment? Is it to ‘burn calories’? Is it because you’re worried about weight gain?” Those are signs that you’re using exercise as a way to control your body, which can be stressful and unhealthy.
Put It into Perspective
At this point, you might be thinking: “OK, fine, but won’t all of this make me gain weight?” That’s a fair question, and the answer is: maybe. But try to remember that all of this is temporary—once you get back to a more typical routine, your body will likely also return to whatever a typical weight is for you. Although there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about weight “set points,” research indicates that your body will fight significant loss or gain in order to maintain a certain weight, and small fluctuations are normal, Catalano explains.
“Gaining weight during this period, I want to be super clear, is not a problem,” Catalano says. “If the worst thing that happens to you from this is that you gain a few pounds, then consider yourself lucky. Everyone’s routines, everyone’s habits, everyone’s quality of life is drastically changing right now.”
And if you do gain more weight than you’re comfortable with, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be less healthy. “Weight changes may be an indication of disease, but weight alone isn’t a reliable measure of health,” Caplan says. A 2019 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 35 percent of obese subjects in several previous studies were metabolically healthy. And a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at a total of 100,000 adults in Denmark over a period of 40 years and found that those in the overweight category had the lowest mortality rate (that is, risk of death). In other words, the relationship between weight and health is complicated and not perfectly understood.
Just Do Your Best
The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t stress about what you’re eating or how much you’re exercising right now. We’re in uncharted waters with the COVID-19 pandemic and current quarantine guidelines, and it’s fine to turn to food as a source of comfort. While your exercise routine might change, you can still use movement as a way to decompress and establish some sense of normalcy. Remember that what’s happening is temporary, and trust that your body can handle it.