January and coronavirus are difficult for people with eating disorders

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Sarah Asch
 
| Austin American-Statesman

While the holidays and the new year always has the potential to be difficult for people who struggle with disordered eating, experts say the pandemic could be making this worse. 

We are all surrounded in January by messaging about losing weight and exercising more, which is often framed as a New Year’s resolution, and this can cause people to engage in unhealthy behaviors, said Alexa Sparkman of Sparkman Nutrition in Austin. Sparkman is a registered dietician and has specialized in treating eating disorders for decades. 

“What we see in January is the rebound of feeling guilty over having indulged over the holidays,” she said. “Whether or not it moves into full blown eating disorder, there may be a lot of people who are subject to the emotional trauma of doing something in January that our bodies are not designed to do, like extreme exercise or restricting food.”

Marcie Kissko, a registered dietician at TLB Nutrition Therapy with offices in Bee Cave, said she worries that the pandemic might make the messages we hear about weight loss in the new year even more extreme. 

“With COVID-19, maybe people’s bodies have changed, being home more and out of routine and so I think there is going to be a big push for weight loss,” Kissko said. “I think everyone is looking to turn a corner from 2020 to 2021, so I think New Year’s resolutions might be turbo-charged this year.” 

This has the potential to affect both people with diagnosed eating disorders and those whose habits veer into the territory of disordered eating. While eating disorders have certain criteria for diagnosis, disordered eating describes a range of unhealthy behaviors when it comes to food, body image and exercise, according to Libby Hill, a dietician at iLiveWell Nutrition in Austin. 

“Disordered eating can include everything from going on a fad diet to feeling like you need to exercise to compensate for a meal that you ate, skipping a meal or denying your hunger signals,” she said. 

Kissko said that being isolated and at home also has the potential to exacerbate disordered eating habits in both kids and adults 

“I’ve gotten a lot of new teen and adolescent clients this year where maybe some disordered eating was going on and then the pandemic hit and they were stuck at home,” she said. “Kids oftentimes have less avenues for control and food might be the one thing they can control.”

Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors often manifest for the first time in 12 or 13 year olds. 

Lacey Branker, the school social worker in the Lake Travis district, said students who are worried about themselves or a friend can seek out help from her or a school counselor. Often, the school will refer students to outside treatment options, but Branker said part of her job is to offer continued support to students in recovery and to answer questions. 

Molly May, chief student support officer in the Eanes school district, said that while the district does not provide direct counseling around eating disorders, staff are available to help collaborate with families to help a student implement elements of a treatment plan when appropriate in a school setting. 

However, specialists pointed out that eating disordered and disordered eating can impact anyone, not just teens or other groups thought of as being at a higher risk. 

“We see eating disorders in everybody, every gender identity, every race, every socioeconomic status,” Hill said. “Definitely ditching that idea that eating disorders look a certain way, present a certain way or only affect a certain population can be really helpful to opening your eyes to maybe some warning signs.”  

Hill said that the presence of eating disorders and disordered eating habits across a spectrum of identities is caused by the fact that our culture often focuses on weight loss at all costs rather than a balanced view of food and health. 

“We exist in a society where health is equated to weight and in reality that’s just not the truth,” Hill said. “It can be more damaging to people to go on this roller coaster diet than it actually is to be sitting at a more natural higher body weight.”

One thing that can help is for everyone to take the focus off of bodies, weight loss, diets and exercise in our conversations, Sparkman said. 

Kissko said it is also important not to talk about food as though it is a reward for exercise since comments like that can have a negative impact on people who are struggling with eating disorders.

For those who know that this time of year is hard for them, Hill said that curating your social media feeds to ensure that you unfollow people who spread unhealthy messages — or taking a break from social media altogether — is a good step to protect yourself. Setting boundaries with family and friends about what is OK to talk about and what is not is also a good idea, she said. 

“There’s something to be said for that time of year, anticipating that there’s going to be this surge of loud diet culture happening, it’s going to be coming from every angle so having that expectation and setting your boundaries in advance,” she said. “Sometimes that means literally having phrases that you can tell yourself in your head or that you can say to others when those topics come up.”

Sparkman said that for those who have been in treatment or recovery, it is important to stay connected to your clinician team and support systems when you are struggling. For those who are struggling and do not have those supports in place, she said it might not be a bad idea to seek help. 

“My recommendation to people would be if they find themselves really struggling is to get help, especially in this environment we’re in of being isolated and in quarantine,” she said. “It’s a very difficult thing to do alone or without professional help.”

Hill said that one thing she likes to remind people this time of year, and that she encourages people to remind themselves, is it is OK to exist in your body as it is and to give your body what it needs. 

“The one big thing that I like to preach to people especially during the new year is you don’t need an excuse to eat, you don’t need an excuse to exist in your body in the size it wants to be. You have permission to enjoy food. You have permission to eat,” she said. “A lot of people think for some reason the rules don’t apply to them but you deserve to eat. And you deserve to love yourself.”

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