As if social isolation, disruptions to daily routines and heightened anxiety around the coronavirus pandemic aren’t making it difficult enough for those struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating, an onslaught of diet culture messages about how to avoid weight gain while under quarantine is adding fuel to the fire.
In some ways, it’s completely mind boggling that in the face of an unprecedented global health crisis, fatphobic memes, articles and news stories on how to avoid weight gain, lose weight, and exercise without access to a gym would take center stage. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. Diet culture literally profits off of people’s insecurities and fears about their bodies, and promotes the idea that weight is something they can keep tight control over. What better time to capitalize on those fears and insecurities than during a pandemic when people are feeling anything but in control?
Diet culture is not only trying to profit off of people’s fears of weight gain, but it’s also trying to make a connection between body size and increased COVID-19 risk. Despite what you may see circulating in the news and on social media, there is no evidence that being at a higher weight puts you at a higher risk for developing COVID-19, or that weight loss will decrease your chances of getting sick. (Fellow anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison recently rounded up a bunch of studies highlighting the lack of evidence that high weight is an independent risk factor for COVID-19. Check it out here).
True, people with conditions like heart disease and diabetes are at greater risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19, but that’s because of how these conditions affect their ability to fight off a virus. People with well-managed pre-existing conditions like diabetes are less likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19, regardless of how much they weigh. Diet culture loves to conflate weight with health, but one really has nothing to do with the other.
In addition to the rhetoric around weight and COVID-19, diet culture and the wellness industry have been pushing clean eating and supplementation with mega-doses of vitamins and minerals to boost immunity. What’s the deal with that?
First of all, your immune system is complex and influenced by a million things other than food: genetics, sleep, stress and anxiety. One of the most important things you can do for your immune system is eat regularly and eat enough. It’s true that many foods contain immune boosting properties like antioxidants, probiotics, vitamins and minerals, but none of that matters if you’re not consuming enough energy on a regular basis. When it comes to supplements, there’s currently no evidence to support their use for treating or preventing COVID-19. Certain ones like vitamin D, vitamin C, elderberry and zinc have been studied for their efficacy in treating cold and flu, but the data on COVID-19 just doesn’t exist.
So push all of the diet culture messaging aside and remind yourself that your priority right now is take care of yourself as best you can during an uncertain time. Some days that might mean doing an online workout, and other days that might mean watching Netflix for several hours. It means making meals and snacks a priority even if hunger and fullness cues are off, but it’s okay if those meals aren’t particularly balanced and include more packaged and processed foods than they normally do. Your body can handle it!