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‘It’s a mess out there’: Experts discuss COVID’s impact on weight, health

Nearly half of Americans reported gaining weight after living through this extended period of stress and isolation. And it’s not just weight gain: For countless others, COVID has changed the way we eat in fundamental ways.

COVID has changed the way we eat in fundamental ways.

One of the recurring conversations about COVID’s impact is the way the global pandemic has affected our relationship with our bodies and the food we put in them. A 2022 study reported that nearly half of Americans reported gaining weight after living through this extended period of stress and isolation. And it’s not just weight gain: For countless others, COVID has changed the way we eat in fundamental ways. 

Beyond collections of bad-taste memes, coffee-shop conversations with friends and late-night comedian jokes, how has society acknowledged this reality and its impact on our physical and mental health? 

In an effort to start the conversation, I reached out to two experts on nutrition, health and eating disorders — Nicole Eikenberry, a registered dietitian and founder of Mindful Food and Motion, and Jillian Lampert, chief strategy officer for The Emily Program. Their observations, seen here side-by-side in Q&A format, though they were interviewed separately, were insightful and rooted in real-world experience talking to clients and colleagues.

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MinnPost: How have you witnessed COVID’s impact on weight and health in your work?

Nicole Eikenberry
Nicole Eikenberry
Nicole Eikenberry: There is a lot of shame that people carry around their food and eating behaviors. There is so much anxiety about being seen again after a body change. With COVID, I am hearing that anxiety all the time. With the messaging around COVID and bodies, there was so much fear. Weight was really singled out, along with age, as a risk factor for negative COVID outcomes, and that produced a lot of anxiety.

Jillian Lampert: It’s a mess out there. That’s the short answer. Eating disorders have skyrocketed in COVID. It makes sense: You take a whole lot of isolation and a whole lot of anxiety and a whole lot of social media pressure about how we should be dieting and exercising at home. The end result is it really messes with our relationship with food. 

At the beginning of COVID, you had a bunch of anxiety about getting this illness and then being really isolated and we were seeing a lot of social media stuff like, “Here is a delicious new recipe,” or “Here are some workout tips,” or how there is no reason not to be fit even if our world is going through this intense trauma. It was just too much for some of us. We see that impact every day in people who come to the Emily Program.

MP: Do you think that early COVID isolation played a role in the way we ate — or didn’t eat?

NE: It depends on people’s relationship with food before the pandemic. I’ve had clients who said they were happy to be at home because they felt they couldn’t eat normally in front of people a lot of the time. Often people think that being around others helps to regulate their eating. They aren’t able to eat well by themselves. 

For people who sometimes have binging behaviors, being at home around food all day and night removed the protection of being at work and being around other people so they wouldn’t avail themselves of that binging behavior. There was no break from being alone around food. That was scary for some people. Also some people found being at home was helpful because they had more time to put into eating and food preparation compared to having chaotic lives that don’t allow for that.

Jillian Lampert
Jillian Lampert
JL: The stay-at-home time was really difficult on a lot of people. Then, to top it off, so many of us were on camera the whole time with Zoom. With Zoom, you are seeing yourself constantly and other people are also seeing you constantly. There is the added pressure of, “Do they see that my body is changing?” 

MP: Zoom can be such a nightmare. It’s strange to see your face reflected back at you all the time. 

JL: Before COVID, we never went to work and looked at ourselves in a mirror all day long. We never went to church  or a meeting with a mirror in front of us. When you are talking to someone in person, you can forget what you look like — but when you are talking to them on Zoom you are basically looking in a mirror. 

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I think it leads people to think more and more, “I didn’t think I looked that way.” It feeds on our obsession with our weight and appearance and aging. You start to wonder, “Should I be taking those supplements that say they can reduce my wrinkles or help me lose weight?” It makes us vulnerable to a whole host of marketing around appearance. 

MP: What about coming back into the world after an extended period of isolation? Does that change the way we think about our bodies or our relationship with food? 

JL: We are so excited to see each other after being apart. We should be saying, “It is so nice to see you again.”  But instead we say things like, “Have you lost weight?” It is all around body perceptions. No wonder people’s relationship with food is so messed up. The impact of COVID on how we see ourselves and our relationships with our body and food is something I’ve never seen in my career. 

MP: And for people who’ve lost weight, the reason is not always good news. 

NE: So many of my clients, when they have had weight-loss experiences, a lot of the time it is unintentional or part of a serious illness like cancer or depression. People will say to someone, “Oh my God. You look so good,”  but they are actually the most miserable they’ve ever been. You can’t just judge somebody’s insides by their outsides. When a person’s body is changing, you don’t always know what that’s about. 

MP: Have you talked to clients who feel anxious that others might notice their COVID-related body changes? 

JL: All kinds of people have gone through natural body shifts like puberty and menopause during COVID. These are normal life changes, but we’ve all been in a bubble and when you go back out into the world after two years it is like stepping out into bright sunshine after being in the dark. You can feel really exposed and anxious.

MP: What about anxiety? Have you found that people change their eating patterns when they are living in anxious times? 

NE: Anxiety can show up in your belly. The sensation that can get confused with is hunger — and eating can take care of both. Eating can distract you from what’s really going on.   

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JL: The combination of being anxious, of being more isolated and less active, leads people to soothe themselves by eating more very frequently in a much less mindful way. For many people food is a source of comfort. So it is not surprising that some people ate more than they needed in COVID.

When their anxiety is reduced, people assume that they will get back to their normal lives, be active, eat in a less anxious way and their bodies will go back to where they were before. But instead, because of all this pressure, we use diets to try to force our bodies to go back. That approach leads people to overeat and we are back in the same boat.

MP: With so many people thinking about how the pandemic has changed their bodies or the way they eat, your services must be in high demand. What is your approach to helping clients build a healthy relationship with food? 

ME: A lot of times people are coming to me because they have an issue with food or eating or their bodies. I’m not your typical dietitian. I don’t tell people what to eat. I’m not the food police. I help people be able to trust their own innate knowledge about eating. to learn their cues and reclaim them and learn to honor those cues. It is really meaningful work.