In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, there is currently a popular “Avoid the Quarantine 15” tagline making the rounds. This has apparently become the catch phrase warning to all of us quarantined individuals to be careful of possibly gaining 15 pounds. There are tools to calculate what you are predicted to gain during quarantine as well as news and social media outlets capitalizing on this notion to adopt what I would call “a more diet-centric focus into our already over-diet-focused and fat-phobic world.”

I worry that this Quarantine 15 focus in its current usage is toxic and can backfire. It creates more fear, contributes to weight stigma, and is based on false assumptions. 

As an Eating Disorder (ED) therapist, I do have to acknowledge that I have a strong bias on this topic. Given that a good portion of my work as a therapist is focused on treating individuals with EDs, I tend to be fairly sensitive to (and easily impassioned about) information out in the world that feels triggering, distorted and inappropriately focused.  

I recognize that many of those who are posting or reporting on this catchy phrase don’t necessarily mean to be hurtful or triggering. We live in a diet culture and weight-obsessed world, and so the push to focus on certain products or intense workouts is not unexpected. However, we also know that this sort of focus can actually be harmful to those who are struggling with an ED, disordered eating, orthorexia, body image disturbances or other ED-related issues. These are serious illnesses that can affect one’s every waking hour, significantly disrupt their life and have serious long term effects. How we approach and talk about such things matters, and those who know, treat, or have recovered from an ED may be ideally situated to assist in educating the communities at large about some truths. 

Let’s look at some facts and then a reframe.  

Eating Facts

Stress can cause more stress eating and emotional eating. Some of that is going to be pretty normal, and it’s OK. We are all a bit more stressed right now given the uncertainty of this virus and its impact. Cortisol is running amuck in our bodies. And food can be calming.

It’s ok to enjoy food, try out new recipes, savor tastes.

Things are closed and we have fewer options for entertainment and adventure. Feeling badly and guilty about what we are eating tends to often make us want to eat more to calm the stress of negative feelings. It is how some humans cope. Other humans might show stress in other ways, such as in sleep, substance use, or mood issues.  

One helpful approach to stress or emotion eating is to slow down and be mindful. Chew, taste, focus, enjoy — that leads to satisfaction. We need food every day, multiple times per day — so we have lots of opportunity to practice this. And we can also embrace the fact that some humans will have more stress eating during stressful times. 

We can also keep searching for other things that calm us and soothe us. We are limited right now in being able to do all of our usual activities, but this can also be a time to get creative about how to manage our stress, which might indeed include some comfort foods. 

Body Facts

One important body fact to remember: A person’s weight has absolutely nothing to do with their worth. Over-focusing on weight is damaging and misleading — and, frankly, can often lead to more stress eating or other stress-induced behaviors.  

Our bodies are often smarter than we give them credit for, especially if we listen to them. Higher respect and honoring of our bodies also tends to result in us taking better care of our bodies. 

During this global pandemic, some people might gain weight, while others will lose and many will stay the same. If someone gained some weight, is that really the worst thing? If their body was not meant to be at a higher weight, then their body will likely settle back to their normal set-point weight, when the pandemic is over and we can resume our normal activities. Or maybe it won’t. But there is no benefit in scaring people. And there is harm in weight-stigmatizing. 

The bottom line: Our aim at this point in time is, I would think, to help as many people survive this pandemic as possible. This is not a body size competition or vegetable-eating contest. This is an unprecedented time when we are doing the best we can to get through this pandemic.

Messages that might include education about mindful eating, about hunger and full signals, about variety helping with satiety are all great; however, messages based on fear and taking advantage of our diet-focused culture are not acceptable. 

There are other more important things to report on. Maybe we focus more on helping those who have lost a job or are struggling to feed their kids or caring for a family member who has the virus. Or maybe we do need a break from pandemic news. There are many other much more positive and accurate things to be helping our public to know about during a global pandemic. And if someone craves a focus on the body, let’s at least have it be HAES (Health At Every Size)-informed information.

Find a Way to Reframe

Can we make the Quarantine 15 stand for something else? We need to find a way to keep this larger issue in perspective. Some ideas to consider might include: 

  • Find 15 new recipes to cook.
  • Try 15 new types of food that you haven’t been brave enough to eat.
  • Explore 15 foods you never before had time to make from scratch.
  • Practice 15 times of checking in with your body about its hunger, thirst, fatigue or fresh air needs to begin to develop new habits.
  • Aim for 15 contacts with friends or family each week.
  • Look for 15 creative ways that people have filled their time or stayed in touch.
  • Take 15 breaths before responding to a distressing conversation.
  • Plan for 15 minutes of outdoors time each morning or evening.
  • Engage in 15 minutes each day of practicing a new hobby or habit you are trying to learn.
  • Attempt 15 new yoga poses.
  • Engage the children in seeing how far 15 giant steps takes them in the yard.
  • Strive for a 15-minute time limit on news intake each day.
  • Find 15 gratitude practices each week.

The reframe options are many. I have optimism about the creativity and ingenuity of humans. I think we can find ways to turn away from the currently harmful Quarantine 15 focus to a much more positively focused way to get through this pandemic.  

And maybe, just maybe, we can make some impact on the focus for our world even when this pandemic is past. We might even call it a different kind of flattening of the curve of another kind of epidemic that has been unfortunately plaguing our society for way too many decades. 

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