The pandemic & diet culture: 7 tips to reset to a healthy mind-body balance

Young Woman Using Meal Planning Mobile App for a Healthy Diet

As the COVID-19 Delta variant continues to spread, it’s important to look at all the ways the pandemic continues to affect our health.

One big way is how we eat. Nutrition, dieting, exercise, body image — all of these things change when our daily lives change. And during the first 18 months of the pandemic, those changes included an increase in eating disorders, likely fueled by social media exposure, stress and isolation.

“Last year we saw an increase in binge eating, stress eating, bulimia and anorexia,” says Leslie Cornett, registered dietitian and nutritionist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “The increase in disordered eating was substantial in everyone from children to teens to adults. People who were in recovery backtracked, falling into old patterns and habits. And I still talk to many people struggling with binge eating caused by stress.”

            Spotting the signs: what is binge eating?

“Now, as we face more hard choices to protect our health, it’s even more important to understand how stress and eating are connected, and to take a moment to explore our connection to food.”

Does social media play a role in disordered eating?

Cornett: Absolutely. When we were quarantined, people were consuming social media day and night because there wasn’t much to do. That increased people’s level of fear, worry and stress — all of which are catalysts for eating disorders developing, worsening or relapsing.

How does isolation factor in?

Cornett: Isolation was a tremendous factor, and still is in many locations. When you’re enduring isolation, you feel lonely and hopeless. Humans have an inherent social need, and when it’s not being met, that’s a prime trigger for depression and other negative emotions.

For someone who’s an overeater, isolation creates a dangerous cycle. What else are they going to do with their time? Boredom, fear, stress, depression — all of these are triggers.

What do we mean when we talk about diet culture?

Cornett: Today, most of us live in a culture where people don’t go on a diet; they exist on a diet — all the time.

In this context, a “diet” is any specific plan for food intake that’s meant to foster weight loss. It may be called a “lifestyle” or an “eating method,” but if it has hard, unbreakable or unreasonable rules that are aimed at weight loss, it’s a diet.

While the primary reason most people look to a diet is weight loss, what some of us are really looking for is a solution to all our problems. And that’s not going to work. If we don’t look deeper at our relationship with food, we’re going to stay in the diet cycle forever.

The facts about dieting

  • Diet and weight loss are a $71 billion industry, despite the fact that studies show up to 95% of diets fail.
  • More Americans are on diets today than 10 years ago, yet more Americans are obese (40%) today than ever before.
  • Females go on up to 130 diets in a lifetime. On average, females start a diet twice a year, with each diet lasting roughly 1 month.
  • Females spend an average of 17 years of their life

Cornett: Diets can be effective for some people. But for most, if it’s not realistic and it’s not practical, you’re not going to succeed.

7 tips for breaking out of diet culture

1. Ditch the word “diet”

Cornett: Diets don’t work, so get rid of the word! And get rid of the self-sabotaging terminology. Don’t say, “I was bad” or “I blew it today.”

Using judgmental terms is another way we allow food to control how we feel about ourselves. Instead, we need to dig deep and build a healthy, positive relationship with food.

2. Consider your emotions about eating

Cornett: Most people go from the outside in with dieting, but it should work the other way. Whatever is causing your over- or under-eating is internal, whether it’s trauma, boredom, stress or isolation. To change your relationship with food, you have to change your perspective.

That’s hard! One reason people jump for the quick fix is that they don’t want to have to go through these essential and necessary steps. They want the weight off now. But we’re talking about something that’s going to take time. You’re going to slip and fall flat on your face. Our job is to teach you how to pick back up and keep going.

3. Ask for help

Cornett: It’s really hard to make a change alone, and it’s impossible if you’re fighting a clinical eating disorder, which can sometimes be related to anxiety or depression.

During the pandemic, the National Eating Disorders Helpline experienced a 70-80% increase in calls. What that should show you is:

  1. You are not alone, and
  2. There are many professional, registered dietitians who can help you identify what’s going on and help you figure out the next steps to change it.

            Spotting the signs: 12 symptoms of eating disorders

4. Explore mindful and intuitive eating

Cornett: The next time you reach for a snack, ask yourself: Is this physical hunger? Or am I eating for a non-hunger purpose?

If it’s the latter, look for alternate outlets for that stress or boredom. It’s not an overnight process, but just noticing why you’re eating goes a long way.

What is intuitive eating? 10 principles

5. Don’t cut out foods or food groups

Cornett: Labeling foods “good,” “clean,” “bad” or “junk” foods sets you up to fail. The most effective thing I can do for a patient is help them learn they don’t have to give up the food that they love or cut out whole food groups. Moderation is the key to lifelong results.

And be careful of things that sound healthy but are actually restrictive. For example, while it’s great to eat whole foods and whole grains, some diets asks you to cut out certain food groups like all grains, legumes, dairy and so on. Unless there’s a health reason to remove whole food groups from your diet, that’s a red flag.

The diet dictionary: Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and more

6. Change one thing at a time

Cornett: Instead of overhauling your whole approach to eating, take a step back and just breathe. Try to remove all the pressure that you’re placing on yourself when it comes to food.

If you can remove the expectations, you can look at it as a step-by-step approach. Change one habit at a time. If you take the time to do it right, you’ll be more satisfied and your progress will be sustainable.

7. Go Mediterranean

Cornett: If you’re a person who needs a plan to follow, ask your doctor about adopting Mediterranean principles. While these guidelines are widely referred to as the “Mediterranean diet,” it’s not really a diet, but rather an anti-inflammatory eating style that focuses on eating whole foods and limiting processed and refined foods.

If your goal is healthy weight loss, you’ll need to combine Mediterranean eating with portion control, practice reduced-calorie cooking methods and monitor your balance of food groups. Then, once you reach a healthy weight, you’ll be able to use the guidelines you’ve adopted to eat healthily for a lifetime.

            A complete guide to the Mediterranean Diet

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Mind & Body

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).