8 things to make peace with food during COVID-19
A few days ago, I had a chat with a colleague, stuck at home like me, because of COVID-19. We talked about work, about our kids, and about the things we do to manage our time during the confinement. Towards the end of the discussion, my friend told me that the hardest part for her was the constant battle with her fridge. This struck me.
The following days, I kept seeing posts on social media that revolved around the same topic. Jokes about how the fridge supposedly said: “what do you want now?” to the person who opened the fridge yet again; people worrying about gaining weight during the pandemic; people going to their fridges repeatedly, opening the door and wondering what the hell they were doing there again.
The discussion with my friend and the comments on social media reminded me how lucky I had been, at some point in my life, to be able to overcome an eating disorder. Around age 15, and after a series of difficult events, I isolated myself, while I struggled with bulimia for months.
I spent most of my time alone at home after school and the fridge became my worst enemy. I remember vividly the agony, the powerlessness and the despair I felt when the urge to eat overtook my entire self. Food ruled my world. The more I tried to run away from food, the more it seemed to accelerate its chase and catch up with me. I remember the uncontrollable urge to eat, the long minutes of binge eating, the guilt, the disgust and the complete loss of self-esteem. I remember the 17kg I gained and the ordeal this was for a teenager. I remember the immense sadness I felt, and the tears that rolled down my cheeks the day I told myself: “I am a monster”.
Today, I am a healthy, sporty and slim 46-year-old woman. I am a mother of two, I work as a Communications Manager, and have an active social life. Wellbeing and health have become priorities in my life, as well as my favourite topics of research. Food has not been a problem for me since those difficult teenage years. I am now one of these women other people say to: “how can you eat so much and remain so slim?” or “it’s so easy for you who enjoy all this healthy food” or the best one “you don’t have any weight problems, what would you know?”. Well, as a matter of fact, I know. Because at age 15, I learned the hard way.
Hearing my friend talk about her struggle with her fridge really saddened me. My friend does not have an eating disorder, but I recognized in her words some of the struggles I went through. So, I wondered how my experience could help people who are facing either light or more serious eating difficulties, how I could give hope to those beautiful souls who are feeling so vulnerable and exposed to this demon inside their homes.
I would like to share eight things that have helped me to overcome my eating disorder, and that have turned me into a healthy person over the years. I hope this can also help other people around the world.
8 things to make peace with food
This is by far the most important piece of advice one should follow to reduce food cravings and weight gain. Aim to get your seven to nine hours of sleep each night, even if the laundry is not folded or even if that super cool show on Netflix is about to start. Go to bed at the same time each night and get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is one of the best medicines one could get, especially during a time of pandemic. In a recent TED talk, Matt Walker, Sleep Scientist at Berkeley, explained: “There is a very intimate relationship between your sleep health and your immune health […] Individuals who reported getting less than seven hours of sleep had almost a threefold increased likelihood of getting infected by the rhinovirus.” Lack of sleep is also very closely linked to binge eating. According to the National Sleep Foundation: “A lack of sleep is linked to overeating — especially the overconsumption of junk food — which can lead to weight gain.” They also add that: “A lack of sleep kicks off a process in the body that raises the blood level of a lipid known as endocannabinoid.”
2. Understand that the challenge you are facing does not define you
Struggling with food does not make you a monster or a weak person. It does not make you a worthless person, it does not make you a disgusting person. The difficulties you are experiencing do not define who you are. They simply mean you are currently having difficulties in one area of your life. We all have our own challenges in different fields. Nobody should be allowed to judge anybody. Some people struggle with sleep and nobody would think of telling them in a contemptuous way that all it takes is just to close their eyes. Similarly, nobody should be allowed to tell you that all it takes is just to stay away from the fridge. It is not that easy.
3. Understand how your body works
Something that greatly helped me when I was fighting bulimia is an article I read on how the body adapts to what it believes to be war or starvation times. The less you feed your body, or if food is provided randomly, the more your body will hoard fat. This idea is supported by Vanessa O’Brien, Dip.NT, MFNTP, Nutritional Therapist & Health & Life Coach in the UK, in an article published earlier this year on the Nutritionist Resource website. Vanessa O’Brien said: “The body regulates metabolism according to food intake over time. If the body thinks that restrictive dieting is going to continue, it will down-regulate the metabolism, reserve energy, and store fat. The result? It becomes harder to lose body fat.” Feed your body regularly to avoid this mechanism.
4. Follow a regular meal schedule
Just like our bodies need seven to nine hours of sleep, just like they are easily disrupted by a short night or by irregular bedtimes, our bodies need regular feeding times too. As reported in an article published on Science Daily, Ali Güler, a professor of biology at the University of Virginia explained that: “The eat-at-any-time lifestyle recasts eating patterns and affects how the body utilizes energy,” he said. “It alters metabolism […] and leads to obesity.” Try to follow a regular meal schedule. Eat breakfast. Eat a snack at 10am. Eat lunch. Eat a snack at 4pm. Eat dinner. I know, this sounds frightening. You immediately have thoughts of loss of control and extra weight, but eating regularly is the key to a healthy body and a healthy relationship with food.
5. Truly enjoy occasional treats without guilt
For a food lover, hearing they need to eat a balanced diet is their worst nightmare. I was like that too. I confused “eating healthy” with “going on a diet”. There is a clear difference between the two. Eating healthy means that you eat a variety of healthy foods from each food group most of the time, but you are of course allowed to occasionally eat those pastries, chocolates or cakes that you enjoy so much, to drink a glass of that silky wine, or to indulge in your favourite crisps and salami. The key is not to eat these every day and to eat them in reasonable quantities. Telling yourself that you cannot enjoy these wonderful pleasures of life is the best recipe for failure. Allow yourself to be happy and to treat yourself now and again. And most importantly, don’t feel guilty about it. I remember a male friend of mine who once said: “what is worse than eating a piece of chocolate when you are supposedly on a diet?”, he said “it is eating that piece of chocolate and not even enjoying it because you are so full of guilt”. And he was so right. Enjoy the treat, let your brain create all these happy feelings inside you.
6. Shift your focus to wellbeing
Please hide your scales. Try Marie Kondo’s approach. Hold your scales, thank it for having measured your weight so faithfully during all these years, and tell it that you no longer need it. Throw it in the bin, or if you really cannot do it, take it to your basement, place it in a place that is difficult to access and get back home. Really. Forget your scales and focus on your wellbeing instead. Shift the negative thoughts that you inevitably get by focusing exclusively on your weight onto more positive endeavours. Instead of obsessing about your weight, obsess about little things you can do each day to improve your general wellbeing. Enjoy this moment alone with a cup of coffee in the sun before the kids are awake, set up a room with soft lighting and scented candles and practice yoga or meditation, take a bath, follow an online tutorial on self-massage and test it out with scented oil, go for a walk in the forest, take up that hobby you always dreamed of but never had the time for, practice deep breathing. Focus on finding things that make you feel good inside, that relax you and that make your lips curl up. Focus on improving and soothing your mental health, rather than focusing on your waste circumference. The better you will feel in your head, the better your body will feel. Compulsive eating is often the result of stress, anxiety, depression, boredom and many other negative feelings. Increase the positive feelings inside you and your body will be able to find a better balance. Read this interesting article from the Harvard Medical School to learn more.
This advice is given repeatedly, and it is the one that discourages people the most. There is this internal talk in our heads that puts us off. We think that we are so overweight that exercising is useless, that we will not see the results in this lifetime, and it is just too tiring and unachievable. Here again, shift your focus to your wellbeing. Exercise not to get thinner legs but to feel good inside yourself. I am yet to meet a person who does not feel good after an exercise session. Do not worry about visible results. As in food intake or sleep, the key in exercising is regularity. If you are not used to exercising, no problem. Just walk around your house three times this week. Next week you can walk down your entire street and back. Take it slowly, but regularly. There is no doubt that with time you will make progress and there is no doubt that with time you will start enjoying it. But do start. It is important for your health, it helps your mental health, and it will eventually impact your figure too. In her book “The Happiness Project”, Gretchen Rubin rightly says: “By doing a little bit each day you can get a lot accomplished”.
8. Get natural light and fresh air
The effect of light and fresh air on our moods has been demonstrated over and over again. Try to go outside and get natural light as much as possible, ideally at least once a day. A lack of light is a well-known cause of depression in winter, and can trigger negative feelings and a general lack of energy the rest of the year too. Go out each day even if it is cold outside. Dress up and get out the door. If you are in a country that is under complete lockdown, then sit on your balcony with a book, or by an open window when the sun is shining through. Live to catch those rays of sun. They can only improve your mood and make you stronger and more able to resist the temptation to open your fridge. For the winter months, when going outside is really too much to ask, light therapy is a fantastic alternative. Invest in a lamp, make sure to use it every morning and you will feel the effects very quickly.
In conclusion, add regularity to your life, make wellbeing and inner peace your priorities, and treat yourself with love. The rest will fall into place. Don’t aim to lose these 10kg before summer, don’t buy a dress a size down to encourage you to lose weight, just don’t use these harsh techniques that will just increase your anxiety and stress levels. Have regularity in your meal, sleep and exercise patterns, and focus on doing something small each day that boosts those serotonin levels in your brain. Invest this time for yourself. Make time to love and treat yourself. If your mental health is good, your body will find its natural balance. And if in the midst of this you happen to have days where you feel low, where nothing works, and where you go back to bad habits, well, such is life. A kid falls from his bike and gets back on it straight away. When such days happen, don’t kill yourself with guilt and remorse. Let the day pass and tomorrow will be a better day.
Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional and these tips may not be suitable for everyone. If the above does not work for you or if you have severe depression, a severe eating disorder that the above cannot alleviate, or if you have any other underlying condition, please seek medical care.