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‘Make Eating Social Again’: How COVID-19 Challenges Those With Eating Disorders

Woman sitting at a kitchen table
Creative Commons

For many who suffer from eating disorders, COVID-19 has thrown a curveball into their usual management and coping methods. Social isolation has meant less accountability and a heightened ability to hide disordered eating. 

While virtual therapy has been a saving grace for some during the pandemic, others have struggled with finding the right treatment for their harmful relationships to food. Host Anita Rao talks to Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, associate professor of agriculture and human sciences at North Carolina State University, and UNC Chapel Hill student Anna DePollo about their personal struggles with disordered eating during the pandemic, as well as Mazella Fuller, Counseling and Psychological Services staff social worker and Clinical Associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.

The National Eating Disorders Association has a resource page for those seeking support and assistance. Additional tips and resources can be found here

Interview Highlights:

On Loss of Control

For Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, losing control of the pre-pandemic routine she had worked out for herself triggered old behaviors. “Right before the pandemic, I was traveling a lot. And traveling really requires me to be more flexible around meal times and exercising,” she says. “That’s really healthy for me because it reduces my obsession with wanting to structure everything and control everything. So when I was told to work remotely in March, I thought I would be back to work in a couple months. But then the COVID cases started to rise and hospitalization rates continue to rise. And then came the COVID deaths. As someone who's trained in public health policy, without a national strategy to really address the pandemic, I just felt helpless. So I began piling on my own rules around my daily routine, and I started putting restrictions on what I could eat and when I could eat. I knew I couldn't control the pandemic, but I thought I could control my body.”

On Intuitive Eating

Anna DePollo says that her therapist and nutritionist had been encouraging “intuitive eating” before COVID-19 lockdown. She defines “intuitive eating” as “eating what you want when you want.” But for a college student like Anna whose disordered eating dates back to the 7th grade, something as simple as eating how and when you want was scary. She thought: “That's how I'm gonna gain weight. That's how I'm gonna eat unhealthy.” She adds, “It seemed like it was going to go against everything I was trying to hold myself to do. But I believe it's like a mindset that you have to work consciously towards until it becomes subconscious.”

On Unclassifiable Disordered Eating

Among the tens of millions of Americans who struggle with eating disorders, some have no clearly defined diagnosis or condition, which makes their unhealthy patterns more difficult to detect. “It's easy to look at anorexia because it's visible,” says Mazella Fuller. “And maybe not so much when you start to get on the binge-eating side of things. There’s a gray area.” She says that Black women’s eating disorders tend to fall within that gray area and further notes that Black women’s triggers for disordered eating are as much about outside factors as body image. “Most of it is around external barriers, barriers around discrimination, microaggressions, macroaggressions, food deserts, medical deserts and lack of resources, from money to insurance.”

On Seeking Help

Though Haynes-Maslow has sought therapy in the past when dealing with her eating disorder, she has not reached out to a therapist during the pandemic. She has been focusing on talking to her husband and allowing herself to be held accountable, as well as turning her attention outward. “I try to channel my energy and perfectionism into helping others,” she says. “And this includes, you know, focusing on policies to support low-income communities and also in my personal time spending the weekends in my own garden and growing and taking care of plants and animals.”

Fuller says it is important to seek help from someone as soon as you recognize that you need it. “Reach out to someone. That's really the key. Make the connection and try to transcend shame and embarrassment and stigma.”

Stacia Brown comes to WUNC from Washington, DC, where she was a producer for WAMU’s daily news radio program, 1A. She’s the creator and host of two podcasts, The Rise of Charm City and Hope Chest. Her audio projects have been featured on Scene on Radio, a podcast of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University; BBC 4’s Short Cuts; and American Public Radio’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.
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