With the outbreak of COVID-19 and approximately a third of the world’s population currently living under lockdown conditions, we truly are living through one of the most extraordinary events of our lifetimes.
While we are all finding our way as we adjust to this ‘new normal’ (on top of managing a myriad of emotions that this pandemic is bringing up for us collectively and individually), we know that the experience of being ‘in lockdown’ is presenting a unique set of challenges for people with eating disorders, and therefore our AED community.
Over the coming weeks, I will be sharing conversations I’ve had with members of the eating disorders community on how this global crisis has impacted their lives and their work. My hope is that these conversations will provide points of solidarity, insight, hope, and courage as we move through and forward.
On this week’s AED Lockdown Blog series, I speak with Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CND, intuitive eating coach and anti-diet dietitian. After years of listening to Christy’s hugely successful podcast, Food Psych (which FYI has featured a bunch of AED members), it was such a (surreal) delight to interview her for this mini-blog series. Christy offers a grounded, social-justice oriented perspective that I appreciate so much on her podcast and I am so happy to share here.
Nadia: How are you today?
Christy: I’m doing alright, hanging in there. I’ve actually been a little bit sick – I’m recovering from a sinus infection and I’m not sure if it’s totally going away with the antibiotics, so I’ve been a little nerve-racked about that.
Nadia: Goodness, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you’ve been sick. It’s a horrible time to be ill with anything right now and, I imagine, very inconvenient!
Christy: So inconvenient! I’ve had to do everything over tele-medicine, and I haven’t actually been to see a doctor. I don’t want to because I don’t want to put myself at risk but at the same time…
Nadia: Totally. Am I right in thinking you’re in New York?
Christy: I am. We are a little outside of the heart of the city so it’s not as dense or scary but still, we are quite near the epicentre.
Nadia: Wow, yes. There’s a lot of coverage of New York on the news at the moment. What are the current regulations in terms of going outside there?
Christy: So you can only go out for ‘necessary outings’ for things like grocery shopping, medical appointments, or exercise – but we are still supposed to socially distance (6ft!) when you go out and we are strongly encouraged to wear masks when we are outside.
Nadia: Right. It sounds fairly similar to the UK. How has your day to day changed during lockdown, perhaps thinking about your work in particular?
Christy: Not so much honestly. What’s changed is my mental ability to be present and to focus.
I do all my client consultations virtually and have for several years. The podcast is all virtual, the writing I do I can do from anywhere, so really everything I do in my day-to-day except from live speaking engagements – and I’ve had a few cancelled –is pretty similar to what I was doing. It’s just that it’s such a weird time and everyone is in such a weird place there’s been a lot more rescheduling and last minute changes, so it feels more hectic and chaotic.
Nadia: Right, I get that! So, in terms of your clients, can you say anything in terms of how they are managing response to lockdown?
Christy: Yeah, it depends on the person. Some people have said they feel like their disordered eating has really been kicked up a notch by all this because of feelings of scarcity, economic uncertainty, seeing empty shelves at the stores. In contrast, some of my clients are, for whatever reason, more insulated from it – for example their town hasn’t been directly affected or they already work from home, so their routine hasn’t changed that much, so it depends on the person.
Nadia: That makes sense. Can we talk about weight stigma in this pandemic? I read the piece you wrote for WIRED rebutting headlines claiming higher weight is a risk factor for COVID-19.
Christy: Yeah, it’s really dangerous and not based on good evidence at this point; it’s based on very preliminary, very flawed evidence. I think as eating disorder professionals especially, we need to help push back against that mythology and help people feel safer and less stigmatised.
For my clients and people all across my audience who are in larger bodies, they are feeling very blamed and shamed by all this rhetoric around body size and COVID-19, they are feeling like their body is the problem - their body is being made out to be the problem by this painting of larger bodies being a risk factor.
So many new outlets are jumping on this preliminary evidence linking weight and COVID-19 that doesn’t control for socioeconomic status, pre-existing health conditions, and weight stigma and weight cycling…all of which we know can increase people’s risk of all kinds of adverse health outcomes including probably COVID-19. This just amplifies the pre-existing weight stigma that’s been there, and it drives so much disordered eating in our society. My work recently is really about pushing back against weight stigma in our culture and in the media especially and I hope other eating disorder professionals will take that up as well.
Nadia: Relatedly, it seems to me that diet culture is louder right now. Can you speak to that?
Christy: It’s louder because providers of diet culture are clamouring for people’s attention. And honestly, people selling diet culture could be losing money if they weren’t trumpeting their services, so they need to be loud.
I think for people who are really ‘in it’ with diet culture and disordered eating, there is a lot of fear about losing their disordered routine. They are losing their ability to go to the gym, to eat in a certain way, they are having to make compromises with what they buy and what they are able to eat or having to eat more at home, for example. People often use disordered eating as a coping strategy for feeling out of control and so wanting to clamp down and control their food and control their exercise as a way of creating some order in the chaos.
Naturally, COVID-19 is making us all feel anxious and affecting all our routines to some extent, but I think for the people who already use disordered eating as a coping skill, specifically restrictive eating and over exercise, this might be a particularly challenging time. And to a large extent, all eating disorders have a restrictive component to them even if the person is diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder, there’s a restrictive mindset, and restrictive efforts drive the binging. So, as a result we are seeing a lot of people’s disordered eating get triggered and the flames getting fanned by this pandemic. In turn, that’s part of why we are seeing this huge surge on social media posts about fear of weight gain because people are feeling scared and thrown off course.
Nadia: Diet culture doing what it does best capitalizes on people’s body and eating insecurities. So, I know you advocate and work with the principles of intuitive eating. Do you have any advice for people struggling with eating right now?
Christy: I would say it’s so understandable and so normal for eating to be different right now. It’s different for everyone, even people who have been eating intuitively for a very long time. I know my eating is a little different now just in terms of what’s available and the amount of pleasure I’m getting from food is a little lower right now so I’m having to adjust some of my expectations on those fronts. So, for people who already had some disordered eating, I think it’s understandable that this situation would throw them off course and they would feel imbalanced. It’s possible more binging or restricting is happening as a result.
I would say the biggest factor in taking care of yourself with food is to eat enough, to eat regularly and consistently and try to make sure you are having regular meals and snacks throughout the day, not going more than a few hours without eating something -- eating satisfying meals and snacks to the extent you can with what you have available but making sure it’s at least enough food to feel satisfying, so you are not constantly thinking about food.
Also, it’s important to recognise that intuitive eating is going to look different in different situations. Intuitive eating in a calmer time might be about truly following pleasure and allowing your body to tell you when its hungry and following its cues for when to eat. But at a time like this, you might be less able to do that, and so intuitive eating might be more about eating for self-care – “I should eat as a matter of self-care and looking after myself.” Intuitive eating encompasses eating for reasons beyond eating in response to pure physical hunger, it includes eating for self-care and pleasure too.
Nadia: On the topic of self-care, what are you doing to take care of yourself during this time?
Christy: That’s a great question. It’s been a bit different this past week because I’ve had this sinus infection and I’ve not been going outside which is normally an important form of self-care for me, especially as it’s getting pretty nice out here. It definitely feels like Spring – it’s sunny and the flowers are out. So, this past week, I’ve had to adjust and amplify some of the other self-care things I do like watching fun TV, curling up with a blanket and a cup of tea and reading, cuddling with my cat, sometimes doing some yoga via an online class. My husband and I have been dancing around our living room to a fun song every day as a little ritual we decided to do to bring some joy to our quarantine life. So…really just trying to keep it fun and comforting.
Nadia: Nice. I’m so here for finding pockets of joy and leaning into things that feel extra comforting right now. Last question, is there anything making you feel hopeful at the moment?
Christy: One thing that is making me feel hopeful, weirdly, is that people are paying more attention to income inequality, to health disparities, to the social injustice that is pre-existing in our society that’s led this pandemic to hit communities of colour and marginalised communities disproportionately hard. I think people are paying more attention to that and talking about that in a way that they haven’t before. It’s been really interesting to me to see how governments are responding to the economic situation and doing more to financially support folks and it speaks to the fact that we could do all these things. We could implement all of these things to create more social justice and equity in our society and normally we choose not to and in a situation like this we choose to do so because we’ve realised the gravity of the situation. I hope we can harness some of this energy and awareness to work towards social justice in the future.
So that’s actually giving me hope -- although it’s also heart-breaking and crushing and as someone with a fair degree of privilege in a lot of ways I can see it as hopeful and not be directly in it. Even though my husband lost his job, and we have been dealing with that, still we are relatively insulated. So just to acknowledge it, it’s probably from a position of privilege that I can see some of the hope in this situation. But I do feel hopeful that mainstream consciousness is recognising these inequalities and I hope that will create the political will to change things and bring more social justice into our world.