When the U.S. entered quarantine in mid-March, I moved in with my boyfriend of 10 months. We weren’t navigating our new dynamic alone: Staying inside has spawned many new types of togetherness, from turbo relationships to candlelit dinners over Zoom to roommates becoming co-workers. I quickly learned that when you’re with someone 24/7, though, their habits can start to make you question your own. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating in the past, I found myself constantly comparing my diet to my significant other’s as we ate—quite literally—21 meals per week together.
Before the pandemic, my boyfriend (let’s call him Drew) and I were navigating the tricky territory of a long-distance relationship. Being a thousand miles apart presented a slew of challenges, but none of them revolved around how we filled our plates at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In fact, we pretty never had to talk about food until we found ourselves locked inside together, needing to discuss every ingredient on the grocery list, debate what and how much to cook for dinner, and ask questions like, “Is that enough ________ for you?” or “Do you think we need to make the whole box of pasta?”
I didn’t realize the effect that this new dynamic had on my eating habits until mid-April when an Instagram post from dietitian and Olympic marathon qualifier Starla Shines Gomez, RD, shook me awake. “Ladies,” she wrote, “do you struggle with controlling your appetite around men because you feel you should be eating less because you are a woman…[You] don’t have to be sorry, guilty, embarrassed about how much food you need to feel satisfied. Honoring your hunger, fullness, and recognizing that your body is doing things that require energy is important for you as a runner!”
Her message forced me to re-evaluate how I had been approaching food during quarantine. I realized that more often than not, I was ignoring my own hunger cues in favor of just eating a little bit less than Drew. Worse: I hadn’t even noticed what I was doing.
Certainly, there are a host of complex dynamics when it comes to what we eat and in what company. What really struck me about Gomez’s post, though, was that I’d been allowing someone else’s body, hunger, and needs dictate what was best for my own. How f**ked is that?
When I ask intuitive eating dietitian Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, for her best guess at why myself (and likely, others) change our eating patterns in the quarantine company of others, she tells me that diet culture—aka the system of beliefs and values that equites thinness with health and virtue, promotes weight loss, and demonizes certain foods and eating patterns—is likely behind it. By always consuming smaller portions than my boyfriend, I may have been inadvertently playing into some of those strict ideals of what diet culture deems “healthy.”
“Diet culture puts it in our heads that we always need to be eating less than we already are. Less, less, less, less,” says Harrison. In the 90s, and early 2000s, calorie counting was the name of the game; now, we have intermittent fasting, appetite-suppressing supplements, and influencers promoting things like the “banana test”, all of which are explicitly designed to help people eat less food. The “eat less” message is particularly strong for women—hell, even our own U.S. Dietary Guidelines say that women should eat less food per day than men, even when factoring in activity level. But these blanket recommendations don’t account for the many, many other things besides activity that affect nutrient needs, such as genetics, environment, stress, and illness.
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“I think that those underlying beliefs are kind of a drive to make comparisons, to see what other people are eating and ask, ‘Am I good? Am I morally-worthy? Am I doing it right? Am I doing the right thing?’ The conclusion is: If someone else is eating less than I am, then I’m bad in comparison,” Harrison says. In my experience, that’s absolutely true. When I was living alone, I could only really compare my diet to, well, my diet. Now, I’m having to relearn to keep my eyes on my own plate—and it’s anything but easy.
Realizing that I so easily let Drew’s diet influence my own forced me to start to unpack what other remnants of diet culture—and more specifically, their restrictive eating manifestos—I was still subconsciously clinging to at mealtimes. In the thick of my disordered eating patterns in college, I banished carbohydrates of all types from my meals, filled my plate with excess fiber, and halved the serving sizes on all of my favorites foods. And if I’m being perfectly honest, echoes of those behaviors still remain now. They are the company I keep constantly. I’m quarantined with them, always; sharing food with Drew just amplified their messages. And yes, their ultimate goal is to tell me to eat (and be) “less, less, less, less.”
When I ask Alissa Rumsey, RD, a certified intuitive eating counselor and owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, how I can hit the dimmer switch on diet culture and truly listen to what my body needs, she says that it’s all about cultivating awareness around my choices when food is on the table. “The first step with anything is noticing what it’s happening, so bringing awareness to when you’re [comparing your eating habits to others’]. You’re not necessarily trying to change the behavior right away, but bringing awareness at mealtimes or during the day of like, ‘Okay, I’m noticing that I’m comparing what I’m eating to my roommate or my partner.’ Then notice what happens; what other thoughts you’re having,” says Rumsey.
According to Rumsey, this simple mindfulness skill allows you to create space between what you’re feeling and your reaction to what you’re feeling. That way, “I feel bad because ____ is eating less than me. I’m going to eat less tomorrow” becomes “I feel bad because ____ is eating less than me. Why is that? What can I do to shift the focus back to what my body needs?”
“You just want to turn it back inward,” says Rumsey. “The more you do notice and then redirect your attention back to your own body, the less you’ll compare yourself to others in time.”
To be sure, there’s no quick fix. It’s been (*checks calendar*) five months since I realized I’d given over the reigns of my diet to somebody else, and I’m still only beginning to notice what needs belong to me and which ones I no longer want in my quarantine pod. Friends don’t let friends spend their lives trying to be less—and one thing I’m learning is that I need to be my own friend now more than ever.
A dietitian breaks down intuitive eating:
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