Prior to the global pandemic, Americans had already suffered from poor metabolic health, with nearly 73% of the population classified as having excess weight or obesity. Then COVID-19 hit, and 42% of people gained more weight than they intended (an average of 29 pounds).
As people now begin to transition to a new, more public lifestyle, many feel trapped in heavier bodies after a year of isolation. Looking for a “quick fix,” many turn to unsustainable fad diets in an attempt to lose weight rapidly. The unfortunate result is a rise in abnormal eating behaviors and even the development of eating disorders.
As a primary care physician specializing in Obesity Medicine, I urge people to be gentle with themselves as some people might become overly critical of their bodies and jump to disordered eating as a means to fix weight concerns as they begin to engage with others outside of Zoom. Disordered eating behaviors can include overly restrictive food intake, irregular or inflexible eating patterns, binge eating, and more. These problematic eating patterns are risky in that they can lead to the development of a true eating disorder, some of which may even be life-threatening. Eating disorders are among one of the deadliest of mental illnesses, secondary in one study only to opioid overdose.
In my practice, I often see this start as an “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to eating. During the pandemic, many of us saw our futures as frightening or filled with the unknown, so we turned to comfort eating behaviors and overly rich foods to soothe ourselves. Now, as we are slowly returning to normal, we are noticing that our “normal clothes” beyond PJs and sweatpants don’t fit, and we find ourselves desperate for quick-fix solutions.
With this in mind, people may jump on unsustainable diets that can lead to the development of binging followed by excessive restriction. This mentality then becomes a chronic pattern. Since the pandemic began, the National Eating Disorder Association’s free helpline has noted an increase in call volume, which I believe is directly related.
If you suffer from disordered eating, you are not alone and this isn’t just an issue for teenagers or young women, as commonly believed. Adults in midlife, men, and non-binary individuals from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds are most definitely at risk but are less likely to be asked about disordered eating. In fact, data shows that groups such as women over 50 and transgendered individuals are two of the groups seeing a marked increase in rates of eating disorders. In addition, if you are a person living in a larger body already, your risk of developing an eating disorder such as binge eating or bulimia is higher.
If you think you may need to or want to lose some of the weight you gained over the last few years, consider the following to do it in a healthy and safe way:
- Take the long-term view – think about healthier eating as a part of a comprehensive lifestyle change process guided by a physician whom you can trust.
- Talk to your doctor – this is very important because they can confirm if shedding extra pounds would improve your health, and confirm that your weight concerns are not due to something like body dysmorphia (a mental health disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance). If your doctor confirms that your weight may be impacting your health, the doctor can also screen you for any contributing medical problems or adjust current medications that may be making the problem worse.
- Come up with a game plan – your physician can help you formulate a personalized and comprehensive plan to improve your weight in a sustainable and healthful way that incorporates nutritional, medical, and behavioral approaches.
- Be patient – finding the right plan for you will take time and effort ¬– but the journey towards better metabolic health while preventing disordered eating is worth it.
The pandemic has shined a light on these important topics, and while they may be uncomfortable, it’s critical that physicians monitor and educate patients about healthier relationships with food and eating disorder prevention. Now more than ever is an especially essential time to provide this type of support, so we can move forward with better metabolic health in a manner that also fosters our psychological health and well-being.