Dealing with Diet Culture During COVID-19

[Trigger warning: mention of diet, diet culture, exercise, and food.] Scroll through any of your social media platforms, your email, the news, and all the content around us and we are surrounded by two things. First, a constant bombardment of information about the COVID-19 virus. This is to be expected in a pandemic that stretches across every single part of the world. Second, we are constantly being exposed to messages around diet and exercise. Scrolling through our Instagram, one that is full of our connections in the campus community, and even we are over and over again exposed to these messages as a department at the University. Floating around Instagram are pictures about the “COVID 15” (hugely offensive and triggering for many by the way) and tons and tons of workout videos and challenges. “Eat this, not that.” “Do this activity for this many times a day and you will get fit.” The list goes on and on.

Yesterday, I came across an article talking about how now is the time to put in the work for that summer body. News flash, have a body and have a summer and you already have a summer body. THIS STUFF IS TOXIC.  

Accounts that normally post nothing to do with exercise or working out are now posting multiple times a day in multiple types of ways about exercise, working out, diets, and everything in-between. While these posts come with good intention, they are also contributing to an over-abundance of messaging supporting some underlying messages that diet culture has been telling us all along. Diet culture tells us that we must work hard to lose weight. (NOT TRUE). Diet culture tells us that only some people of some body types are worthy. (NOT TRUE). Diet culture tells us that gaining weight is a problem and is something we should personally solve. (NOT TRUE).  Diet culture tells us that even in times of collective trauma such as this pandemic you must lose weight. (NOT TRUE). As someone in lifelong recovery from the impacts of diet culture, I find this time to be extremely difficult. I find the need to take extra care of myself and to spend time away from media (all types) whenever I can.

Here are some tips that have been working for me:

Reframe Exercise: I’ve had to reframe exercise for myself. To me, exercise was always goal oriented. I would run to hit that mile number. I would do High Intensity Interval Training to see how many calories I could burn in one session. Exercise was completely tied to weight and weight control. In my recovery, I have had to step back and to reset. I slowly learned about the power of moving because you love moving. Someone once said to me “You need to imagine that your body is the way it is and no amount of exercise or food is going to change that. If that were the case, would you still choose to move and eat in the same ways you do now?” And for me, that was key. I started trying new things and really reframing movement to be about what I enjoy. It turns out, I still really love running. And I run long distance sometimes.  But now it is about me and how I am feeling. I honor and listen to my body. If I am sick or not feeling like it, I take a few days off. If I am feeling like a long soothing run, I make sure to eat the fuel I need to sustain myself. I don’t deprive in the name of weight, I nourish in the name of me.

If you find yourself compulsively exercising or for you exercise is a compensatory tool you use in regards to what you have eaten, I might recommend you use this time to take a step back and to really take care of yourself. Spend your time on other things that take care of you. Practice self-soothing techniques like pampering yourself, taking a hot bath, give yourself a massage, journaling kind notes to yourself, and other ways that honor you. If you do choose to participate in movement, do it to move. Do it to also honor yourself.  Try gentle yoga or take a short walk in nature. This is a practice. It takes time. It is not about just substituting one word for the other, but instead looking inward and finding out what really works for you.

Set Limits and Boundaries:  Decide when and how you would like to engage in social media, television, and other sources of news. There is no way to 100% block out all of the messages coming at us at all times about diet culture. However, setting limits allows you to choose when you dig deep into content and when you take a break. It is especially helpful to limit your time on social media when you are feeling particularly vulnerable.

Unfollow problematic or unsupportive accounts that promote ideals of diet culture. Think about unfollowing or snoozing accounts from family and friends that are posting triggering content during this time. You can always go back and un-snooze or view their content, but this helps to clear you feed to a more positive space for your healing and wellbeing.

Follow supportive inclusive and healing content that helps you learn, grow, and boosts your self-esteem. Follow content that makes you laugh or that you really enjoy. Don’t hesitate to unfollow accounts that slip in diet culture.

When you friends or family speak about diet culture let them know that it bothers you. You can do this directly by saying “when you talk about diet culture (or weight loss, exercise, etc.), it makes me feel uncomfortable. Would it be okay if we talk about something else right now?” However, you don’t need to explain yourself. A simple, respectful request works too. Start with something like “please do not talk about your new diet with me while I am eating.” Or try redirecting the conversation. Try something like, “have you watched the finale of Modern Family (*tears*) yet?” If all else fails, it is okay to remove yourself from the situation or to do your best to not participate in the conversation. You deserve the space to take care of you. 

Accept that you cannot control everything. I am a type A recovering perfectionist who wants to do it all. I plan ahead and I am strategic and goal-oriented. Yet, even I, the ultimate planner, did not plan for this situation. The world is full of uncertainty right now.  I feel it too.  It can be normal to seek out everything and anything you can do to help you feel like you have gained that control back. However, in our quest for control we need to remember that we have to take care of ourselves. We need to give ourselves space to feel the way we feel. This quest for control can be filled with changes in your diet or exercise routine. But these changes impact you over time. The more you control your diet or the more you use exercise to exert your control the more you need and the situation of uncertainty all around us remains the same. Right now, the best you can do is accept that you cannot control the situation. Practice doing things you enjoy that support and heal you during this difficult time. 

Reach out for help. It can be so hard to reach out for help, especially given how much has gone online right now. But do know that you are worth getting the support that you need and there are resources both within the University and around us that want to help and support you. If you need help getting connected to support resources, please visit the Student Support and Advocacy Center and fill out a referral. We would love to help you! If you or someone you know is struggling with concerns around eating and diet, please consider exploring and reaching out to the National Eating Disorders Association here: 

Thinking about you,


1 thought on “Dealing with Diet Culture During COVID-19

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