Throughout this pandemic, many people have exchanged humorous anecdotes about finding some relief for their anxiety through snacking. “The Covid-19” is a lighthearted (though often not untrue) reference to the weight people have gained while in isolation, deprived of many of their usual activities. Francophones call it “Le Quarantaine,” a play on words for a term meaning both the act of being in quarantine, and the French word for “Forty,” the number of pounds one gains while sitting at home seeking comfort within the contents of their pantry.
However, while indulgence is one manifestation of the pandemic, denial is another, potentially leading to much more serious, or even tragic consequences.
In an interview conducted by Iman Kassam for CTV News Montreal, Dr. Nicholas Chadi, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent and addictive medicine, says younger people may, when in isolation, redirect their energy inward. That can lead to unhealthy fixations.
“Teens might have lost their social support, their sports, their activities, their way to kind of be themselves, and may turn towards fixation on body image, eating, exercising, and that can lead to anorexia.”
Ann Kerr is a Psychotherapist and an Occupational Therapist at the Clinic on Dupont. She is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. She says that an initial sign that a person’s relationship with food may be unhealthy is the amount of time they spend obsessing about how food is affecting their self-image.
“Probably everyone has some experience of feeling that they could be better if they were only a little lighter, or a little more fit, or had more muscle definition. Part of that is dose. The amount of time and effort spent controlling and aspiring to a certain level of fitness, or a certain look, is what is more the hallmark of when something is becoming disordered.”
This behaviour, she explains, can begin even in elementary school students, due to a society that increasingly values a certain type of aesthetic.
“It used to be something that was really seen around puberty. As a young person changes, their body composition changes as they start to menstruate. Young girls put on more body fat, and that was a trigger point. But that is no longer the case; it is much younger now...it is (at) 10 years old. That is probably more of the social context, the dieting, the whole concept of size being very important.”
Kerr explains that boys also fall victim to eating disorders, which can be triggered by bullying, or as a consequence of mental illness, such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. Treatment for these children is often medical in nature and can involve hospitalization followed by FBT, or Family-Based Therapy, which gives parents tools to ensure their children eat properly, and put weight back on. However, in some instances, Kerr says, parents can be the triggers.
“They are a reflection of the bigger culture. So if you have parents who are highly invested in (the) shaming of people who are larger, and they're obsessed with their exercise and their diet, that for sure creates a petri dish for an eating disorder (in their children).”
While extreme examples of eating disorders can be fatal, there is a large segment of the population that, while not self-obsessing at a clinic level, are still too hypervigilant about their appearance and nutritional habits. Kerr spoke about the general undercurrent of body dissatisfaction which is prevalent in today’s society.
What is healthy monitoring? And what role can food play during times of stress, such as the onset of winter during a global pandemic? Kerr says the key is ensuring you keep your diet varied, and, most importantly, listening to the physical cues your body is giving you.
“You can have the cake, and then the next meal you probably don't have the cake; you have a piece of fruit. The feeling that you don't have to undo any eating. Because if you eat too much cake you'll feel pretty ill. So pay attention to that. Your body will say, ‘Enough of the cake, I've had enough.’ But, the real practice is, you have what you like, and trust that your body will give you a cue to what you should have next...That is how to be more normalized about it.”
She also stresses the importance of healthy routines.
“Especially with Covid-19, there is a pervasive feeling of anxiety right now...People are normally clock-bound because we're supposed to get up and go to work. But now we don't go anywhere. So the idea is to still keep meals at very regular times, that helps. Sleep should still be at a regular time, and add exercise. And that all helps with stress. Meals are three times a day, always. Don't skip meals. And then there are snacks, like tea breaks, or an evening snack if you are up late, or a morning snack if you get hungry. So being very scheduled helps with stress. Exercise helps with stress. Regular sleep helps with stress.”
One of the biggest battles may still be the stigma attached to expressing behaviours or feelings which may be disordered. People resist making a phone call, or visiting a clinic, or talking to a friend, for fear of being dismissed. They are often patronized, and told, “We are all going through the same thing.”
During Covid-19, we are all experiencing the same pandemic, but the stress manifests itself very differently in each of us. Our reactions are the result of our genetics, our social environment, and our learned behaviour. Changes to one’s body may be a normal part of a changing routine. However, emotional distress, despondency, or obsession are - and should be treated as - red flags of a more serious problem.
In Canada, The National Eating Disorder Information Centre Helpline can be reached at 1-866-NEDIC-20, or via email through their website. In the United States, National Eating Disorders can also be reached through their site, or by calling 1-800-931-2237. They also have 24/7 crisis support. Simply text “NEDA” to 741741.