Post-pandemic diets could be more harmful than helpful — The Know

Editor’s note: Have you been eating poorly in the last year, since the start of the pandemic? Have you become comfortable in your isolation? Are you unsure of how to take those first steps back to a comfortable level of fitness? As more of us are vaccinated and we begin our long recovery from a year unlike any other, The Denver Post wants to help. Today, we’ll be addressing exercise, mental health and nutrition, and what we can do to return to our best selves.  

If your relationship to food and your body has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone.

“I think something so sad in the pandemic has been scrolling through social media and seeing people talking about how they’re going to get their pre-pandemic bodies back,” said Lanie Sumlin, a registered dietitian with EDCare.

The eating disorders clinic has locations in Denver, Colorado Springs, Kansas City and Omaha, and Sumlin says they’re experiencing wait lists and seeing “a huge increase in people reaching out for help and support” over the last year.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Eating disorders strive in secrecy and being alone, and I think that the pandemic has exacerbated that.”

For those who diet as a means to better their health, concerns over an eating disorder might seem far off. But Sumlin and others in her field are working to demystify American diet culture, and to expose the disordered eating behaviors that it creates.

Among the symptoms of a full-blown or developing eating disorder are becoming preoccupied with weight, cutting out or restricting foods and dieting frequently, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

The overarching issue, Sumlin says, is if you think “that you have to lose weight in order to be healthy. Weight alone is actually a pretty poor indicator of someone’s health,” she explained.

Instead, dietitians like Sumlin approach their patients with guidance for intuitive eating and HAES principles, or Health At Every Size. Both frameworks address diversity in everything from body shape to food access and social environment. And they focus on the relationship to self and food before addressing any adjustments to diet.

“As a dietitian, yes, I have nutrition education and knowledge,” Sumlin said. “But I truly want to get my patients trusting themselves and their bodies, regardless of weight. And healing their relationship with food and their bodies. This is long-term work.”

To get started, Sumlin recommends taking small steps to give yourself a break and to break the cycle of diet culture.

“Clean up your social media feed,” she suggests. “Unfollow people that perpetuate the notion that you have to lose weight or (look) a certain way.”

And if you’re interested in changing your view of your body and the food you put into it — without dieting, that is — you can seek out health professionals who use terms such as size inclusivity. (Sumlin recommends the Association for Size Diversity and Health at ASDAH.org.)

But know that plenty of medical and health experts will still just encourage you to lose weight and diet, too.

“It’s a very touchy subject, and there certainly is a divide,” Sumlin said. “It’s not that I think that people practicing from a different lens have intent to harm. … But in the eating disorder world, we see first-hand the damage that is done when the conventional model of health is applied.”

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