As a disordered eater and avid cook, food has always occupied a big part of my mental space, but lockdown has elevated it tenfold. I’m not sure about you, but my days go something like this: Wake up, have a cup of tea and think about what to have for breakfast. Make breakfast. 500 Zoom calls while planning lunch, make lunch while discussing with flatmates what to have for dinner. Go on a run and stop by a shop for said dinner, 500 more zoom calls (with hourly snack breaks), make dinner, watch TV, make cookies, go to bed and dream of breakfast.
Emotions are high, boredom is eternal and food is one of the only comforts we have left (even as I write this my housemate declared ‘I’m bored’ to no one in particular, walked into the kitchen and now the whole flat now smells of bread).
TURNING TO FOOD DURING COVID-19
A comment made by a previous patient of mine has always stuck with me. When talking about eating in response to feelings, she looked at me squarely and said, ‘food has been there for me my whole life, it’s my best friend’. Now, more than ever, we are turning to food. We saw it in the initial mania of panic buying when the threat of Covid-19 loomed, and now every other Instagram post is an artsy picture of banana bread or sourdough (I’ve made both, a walking cliche I know).
At first I thought this was a bad thing. Obsessing over food brings me right back to the depths of my eating disorder, where I could talk and think of nothing else. Instead I focused on doing other things; I made several macrame plant hangers, dedicated a whole weekend to a puzzle, called everyone I knew, even tried to teach myself French (c’est ne bon pas). But honestly, none of this made food any less important.
FOOD IS A COPING MECHANISM AT A TIME OF STRESS
It’s never surprising that we turn to old coping mechanisms in times of high stress, but it’s always a little scary. Whether it’s addiction, obsessive thoughts/behaviours, depression or anxiety, nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has experienced a dip in their mental health.
There’s no two ways about it, a step back can be scary. We wonder if this is the beginning of another spiral, if the hard work we’ve done to pull ourselves out was pointless, if we’ll ever feel better again.
As a psychologist I knew this would happen, but the reality of it happening has still been difficult. For people with challenging relationships with food, this time has been particularly hard.
DON'T BEAT YOURSELF UP, FOOD IS SELF-CARE
I’ve always seen emotional eating as a failure on my part, something I need to fix and avoid. But something beautiful has come out of this crazy period, as I’m starting to learn that emotional eating isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes it’s okay to be soothed by food.
For many, lockdown has provided the chance to engage in some serious self-care, and food is a massive part of that. Some friends say that with the time to cook and plan meals, they’ve never been healthier, while others have been reignited with their passion for cooking. What if being kind to yourself doesn’t just mean eating things that are plant-based or low-calorie, but are delicious (and not always nutritious).
Food IS self-care. In no way am I suggesting we do away with nutrition and eat only baked goods until we can go to restaurants again, but now is not the time to remove the things that bring us joy. Lockdown is hard enough without going sugar-free or hating ourselves every time we eat a bagel.
EXERCISE FOR ENJOYMENT, NOT TO COUNTERACT EATING
Part of the problem is our collective attitude that we have to earn our food (which often means overexerting ourselves). In lockdown we can’t do the things we usually do to ‘counteract’ eating, which has left many people feeling even more guilty than ever for doing something as basic as eating.
I spoke to a couple of friends with complicated relationships with food and they both expressed a feeling of being undeserving unless they’d got out and exercised that day. Of course daily movement is hugely important for our health and happiness (I think I would have gone insane if it weren’t for my walks and yoga), but we have to look at the reasons why we’re exercising. If exercising feels like a punishment or something we have to do in order to feel okay about eating, chances are there’s some more sinister self-esteem issues at play.
SHIFT YOUR MINDSET TOWARDS FOOD AND EXERCISE
To shift this mindset - which doesn’t change overnight - I’ve learnt four important things:
1. Humans need to eat, regardless of our output
Even if we are static all day, our brains and other organs require nutrition. Just by being alive we are earning our food.
2. Choose exercise you enjoy
Instead of forcing myself out on a run to ‘cancel’ a big meal, choose activities you actually enjoy. A little reminder - if you hate every second YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT. Try something else and keep going until you land on something you like.
3. Listen to your body
I now choose whether to exercise based on how I feel. On down days I’ll do yoga or go for walks to get my blood flowing. Some days the whole thing gets to me and I do nothing. Others, I crave a HIIT session so as not to feel like a cooped up chicken.
A few years ago ‘craving a HIIT session’ would have sounded ridiculous - the gym was a punishment to me, a means to earn my food or undo the ‘bad’ things I’d eaten that day - but listening to my body and changing the reasons why I exercise means it almost never feels forced, and I actually now look forward to it.
4. Accept that food is delicious
It is comforting and gives us something to do. It’s taken six weeks but I’m learning to let food be an important ritual in my day. The less I try to fight it, the more I can allow myself to enjoy the meals I’ve lovingly prepared.
THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY TO COPE WITH LOCKDOWN
This pandemic is hard enough without beating ourselves up for not coming out of lockdown with a smaller or more muscular body. Our only job right now is to stay inside and do whatever we can to make it as easy as possible for ourselves and those around us. It’s okay to eat even if you don’t leave bed all day, it’s okay to eat tinned soup when Jane from Instagram has slow-cooked a beetroot, it’s okay to go running everyday to get a break from your boyfriend who it turns out has the most world’s most annoying phone voice, it’s okay to get super nerdy about sourdough because that distracts you from the loneliness for a bit. There is no perfect way to get through this, just getting through it is enough.