7 Tips for People Struggling With Eating Disorders During Quarantine

Advice from therapists and nutritionists can help curb disordered eating in quarantine.

Managing an eating disorder is hard enough. But the current pandemic only exacerbates that struggle for anyone who has a difficult relationship with food—and that's a large percentage of the population. The Eating Disorders Coalition reports that at least 30 million Americans have an eating disorder at some point during their lifetime. For anyone struggling, social isolation, stockpiling, and uncertainty can create triggers in their eating disorder recovery or management, causing them to backslide. We talked to therapists, nutritionists, and dietitians who have a background in these issues to get practical advice on how to manage an eating disorder during quarantine.

Set certainties with food in a time of uncertainty.

A man eating a healthy morning meal, breakfast at home

Quarantining indoors may lead you to find that you have "additional time" during the day, which can be hard for those struggling with an eating disorder. This additional, unregulated time can cause them to fall back into unhealthy habits. Licensed clinical psychologist Rebecca B. Skolnick, PhD, co-founder of MindWell NYC, recommends a myriad of structured food tips, like scheduling three meals and three snacks each day, and trying to put three to four hours between each meal or snack. For snacks, she says to "take out the amount you are going to have" and put it on a bowl or plate while putting the rest of it away so you're not mindlessly eating an entire bag.

"Eat at a table if possible, not in your bed or couch. Make eating a formal event meaning that when you are eating, just eat. Do not watch TV or work while you're eating," she says. "This is a way to be mindful of the food you are eating and the pace you are eating. And try to eat for at least 15 minutes when you sit down to eat a meal." And for more ways to care for yourself right now, try these 15 Effective Self-Care Tips That Are Made for Quarantine.

Delay your impulse response for five minutes.

Shot of a young woman searching inside a refrigerator at home

One of the first steps you can take to curb impulse binging is to try to delay the response for just five minutes, says clinical coach and recovery consultant Mollie Birney, MA. Since human brains are full of "deeply ingrained neuropathways" that lead people to commit common habits every day, people with eating disorders have to forge a "new path."

"Five minutes of a crossword puzzle, knitting, reading, playing that super-addictive game on your phone—any of these activities can help us forge new neuropathways by interrupting the one," she says. However, she reminds those struggling that "delaying the binge" isn't about avoiding it, because changing behavioral patterns is difficult, and you might still want to binge after the five minutes are up. What's important is that "even if you do binge" after the five minutes, you've still started the "process of intervening on the habit pattern" and "creating an offramp from that neuropathway." And for guidance on staying healthy while social distancing, learn 17 Mental Health Tips for Quarantine From Therapists.

Talk to the people around you.

Mother and daughter enjoying their morning together

The best thing you can do for yourself when you're struggling with your food intake is to talk to the people around you, says licensed psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, who has more than 30 years of experience helping those with eating disorders. If you're quarantining with others, you can talk to them about ways you can avoid emotional eating, from "what foods you buy to making sure you eat without distraction." If you're alone, set scheduled meal times with friends over video chat so you have more accountability each day. And for more advice on being solo, check out these 17 Things to Do by Yourself While You're Social Distancing.

Limit your social media exposure.

Young man using mobile phone at home

Not everything on social media is friendly consumption for people with eating disorders, especially now. With posts discussing the #Quarantine15 and people joking about weight gain, it can be a particularly hard place for someone who struggles with food, says certified eating disorder specialist Whitney Russell, founder of Brave Haven Counseling. Even though many people are spending more time on social media right now, she recommends cutting back on your exposure time each day to avoid triggers.

Allow room for your favorite foods.

Beautiful pregnant woman eating ice cream

Preventing yourself from eating the foods you really want can actually do more damage than good. Erin Risius, LPC, director of behavioral health at Hilton Head Health, says this habitual pattern of forbidding yourself from eating your favorite foods can actually cause feelings of deprivation, which may heighten the "forbidden fruit" mentality—causing you to want to binge your favorites. Instead, she recommends incorporating your favorite foods into your overall eating plan with "intent and structure."

"If someone is eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's a day to take the edge off the stress of the day, instead of going cold turkey and pendulum swinging from one pint per day to zero—which leads to feelings of deprivation—this person's strategy may be to eat one mini-sized ice cream per day to start," she says. "The key here is to find the middle ground with shifting behavior instead of fostering the all-or-nothing approach to managing emotional overeating."

Make a virtual appointment with a professional.

Handsome bearded employee holding agenda in hands, having video call over laptop and sitting in office late at night.

Staying indoors doesn't mean you have to stay away from help. In fact, this hard time may have you needing to seek help in ways you normally might not have. New York City-based dietitian and personal trainer Sara De Luca, RD, recommends making a virtual important with a therapist or registered dietitian to discuss your "emotions and eating behaviors" during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Don't be afraid to ask for help," she says. "Registered dietitians and therapists via telehealth services can help you identify the root cause of the eating disorder while guiding your behaviors on the road to recovery while in quarantine."

Remember that no one has it all together right now.

Shot of a young woman suffering from depression in her bedroom

The entire world is experiencing an uncertain and unprecedented time. Don't feel like you're the only one who doesn't have it all together right now—most people don't. Birney says to keep in mind that's normal, and that it's an especially challenging time to modify your thoughts and behaviors.

"The most important piece to remember is that none of these techniques will fully eliminate the craving—they're not supposed to," says Birney. "If we use these skills expecting them to provide us instant relief we're bound to fail. The work isn't about eliminating the cravings, it's about working with them, making friends with them, and figuring out how to integrate them. Nothing is powerful enough to completely quiet those cravings, but with the courage to apply some of these skills, we can begin to shift our relationship to them."

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