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Reflections on Diet Culture, Weight Stigma, and COVID-19

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

As my photo memories of “3 years ago today” pop up on my phone to remind me of the era of banana bread, toilet paper shortages, and Zoom calls, I was reminded of life in the beginning of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified many of the existing problems in the United States, including:

  • Food Insecurity. This has always been a huge problem, affecting 1 in 6 children in the US. Finally, it was being discussed regularly on the News and, of course, on ABC’s iconic musical performances to benefit Feeding America.

  • Racism. This has always existed, but after the world was faced with police brutality captured on camera, we started to [temporarily] pay attention.

  • Mental Health. Mental illnesses existed before 2020, but now there was regular discussion of how we were coping with the shared trauma of the pandemic.

It was so great that the government, the media, and corporations were paying more attention, or so it seemed. Still, there were some crucial problems that were not only left out of the conversation but, you could argue, that they also worsened: diet culture, weight stigma, and eating disorders.

  1. Wellness and Diet Culture

Wellness culture was preaching “anti-inflammatory foods” and ways to “boost your immune system” (btw, these are not real things), but where was the discussion around not eating enough and how that impacts our immune system?

Diet culture profited off of the threat of potential weight gain while we lived more sedentary lives and also ate food, as people subscribed to diets, workout plans, and Instagram challenges.

Fitness culture encouraged the government to allow gyms to reopen so that we could be “healthier!!” while ignoring the risk of contracting a potentially life-threatening illness and passing it to our high-risk community members.

Hustle culture was having people organizing, redecorating, working, and doing other “productive” things, making us feel awful for resting. Hustle, fitness, diet, and wellness culture are a toxic group of friends, like the four Mean Girls with a Burn Book of all of our “flaws.” We will never be good enough for Regina George, and maybe that’s okay.

2. Fatphobic Public Health Messaging

The CDC labeled higher BMIs as a risk factor for COVID, but when you look at the data further, there actually was not clear, consistent evidence that this was the case. Christy Harrison wrote several articles summarizing the data (linked below), and here were some of the mistakes the CDC made when reporting the risks:

  • Some articles reported that “two-thirds of people who died from COVID were in higher weight categories,” but two-thirds of the US population meets the O word categories. So that would mean that people in larger bodies had the same risk as people with lower BMIs. (Some studies reported lower percentages than 66%, meaning people in larger bodies were at lower risks!)

  • Most studies didn’t control for other pre-existing conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. Some of these conditions are correlated with higher BMIs, so it is possible that this, not a person’s body weight, could skew some of the data.

  • There was no control for race, socioeconomic status, or weight stigma, all of which impacted people’s exposure to COVID-19, the quality of their treatment by medical professionals, and their health outcomes.

  • Some studies even demonstrated a potential protective effect of living in a larger body and the rates of contracting the virus.

3. Individualism

Overall, our culture likes to emphasize individual behaviors and how they impact health. “Eat the ‘right’ foods and exercise, and you’ll be healthy.” In reality, only about 30% of our health comes from the way we eat and move our bodies. The rest comes from social determinants of health and genetics – factors outside an individual’s control. An apple a day is not going to make racism go away, increase people’s access to health care, or reduce weight stigma. Drinking kombucha is not going to give people livable wages and adequate time off, and it will not erase your trauma or change your DNA.

Diet culture profits from individualism, promising that if we just eat the right way and stay small, we will be in perfect health. Similarly, COVID-19 spread through individualism. “I want to take this vacation, so I’m not canceling it.” “I don’t want to wear this mask or take this vaccine.” “My risks are low – I can’t be isolated forever!”

If the pandemic intensified any existing food, body image, or general mental health concerns for you, I am sending you so much compassion. The health care system has a long way to go before they become HAES-aligned and eating disorder-informed, but I hope you have people in your life who make you feel safe and supported. Until then, we’ll be here to keep bringing attention to the harms of weight stigma and the evil ways that diet culture infiltrates the medical system. And please remember, those “processed” foods that wellness culture demonized nourished your body. That body, no matter its shape or size, kept you safe during a pandemic. Your resting inside saved an unknown amount of high-risk members in your community.

Emma Leister, RD, Eating Disorder HAES Dietician, Beyond Therapy and Nutrition Center, Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, eating disorder, binge eating disorder, anorexia, treatment, counseling, nutrition

Emma Leister, MS, RDN, LDN Registered Dietician She/Her/Hers

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Beyond Therapy and Nutrition Center eating disorder therapy and nutrition HAES binge eating disorder, anorexia, weight stigma

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