Stress and emotional eating have become a theme of the pandemic, with many worrying that their food choices are unhealthy, incurring a mood that negatively affects their overall sense of wellbeing and self-esteem.
A recent YouGov survey commissioned by the British Nutrition Foundation looked at how Covid-19 has affected diet and fitness and found:
- 27 percent of people admitted they were eating less healthily
- 48 percent did not feel “motivated” enough to eat well.
- 63 percent cited boredom as the main reason for eating more unhealthy foods.
It’s normal to crave high-calorie, high-sugar foods during times of stress, as these provide energy bursts and activate the brain’s pleasure centre, and they can even help regulate difficult emotions, says Nadia Brooker, an eating disorder psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Center, Dubai.
And because stress can boost cortisol levels, it can actually stimulate hunger.
“It is likely we are all experiencing elevated bouts of anxiety, loneliness, anger or even boredom at the moment, which may make some people more vulnerable to engaging in these types of behaviours,” Brooker explains. “Using food as an emotional ‘crutch’ can quickly become the norm and may eventually lead to disordered eating patterns.”
As the pandemic continues globally, and many people continue to work from home, putting in longer hours than normal, or are faced with employment worries, there is a daily temptation to overeat or drink because of the constant availability of food, absence of structure and financial fears.
“It is important to point out that ‘stress eating’ or ‘emotional eating’ are not clinical terms, but rather a way to describe how eating is used to try to regulate or suppress negative emotions, rather than attending to hunger cues,” says Brooks. “Many of us may be guilty of participating in this behaviour to varying degrees at the moment and while, in the short term, this may be regarded as a form of self-soothing and a means to help solve the problem, in the long term it is not a viable coping mechanism. Instead, it creates a vicious cycle of difficult and distressing feelings, followed by guilt and low self-worth. Physically, those affected may also notice weight gain, a decrease in energy and trouble sleeping.”
The typical ‘feel-good’ foods people tend to crave are sugary and carb-rich, such as chocolate, crisps or sweets, and they encourage the production of dopamine and serotonin.The latter is sometimes referred to as the ‘happy chemical’ due to its impact on mood.
Eating these types of foods can be seen as a means to change the way we feel, but any effect is only temporary, explains Brooks.
While so much uncertainty and change remain because of the pandemic, one way to tackle this is to “notice and name” whatever feelings you are having, and then work on developing alternative coping strategies.
Brooks teamed up with Priory eating disorder dietician Alexia Dempsey to offer the following practical tips:
Plan in advance
Having a clear meal plan, that includes three main meals, incorporating carbohydrates, protein, vegetables, dairy and fats, and snacks. Ideally, we function best when we eat regularly throughout the day, which means eating every three hours or so. Generally speaking, regular eating involves eating three meals and two to three snacks. You can plan for treats, too. There is lots of talk about needing to lose weight in the wake of Covid-19 but diets don’t work because they rely on the restriction of foods that are both highly palatable and often considered a reward. If you factor in some treats into your week, you are much less likely to feel you are missing out and you are less likely to binge.
Being dehydrated can cause tiredness, sluggishness, poor concentration, irritability – and hunger. Ensure you are drinking enough fluid during the day. Aim for around 1.5 to two litres.
Scale up the fish
Eating fish several times a week could boost your mood. Studies have shown that countries where people eat more fish have lower incidences of poor mental health.
Exercise doesn’t need to be a run or anything too arduous; walking and getting some fresh air means you are getting a change of scene and this can help boost mood and overall health.
Variety is the spice of life
Make sure you include a range of foods in your meals – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods and dairy – because they all play a role in your health.
Avoid distractions when eating
Eating and watching TV or using laptops and phones while you eat means that you are not engaging with your food and are likely to miss those initial biological cues that tell you you’ve eaten enough to feel satisfied.
If you feel like bingeing or are worried that you are about to engage in a binge, try and change your environment. Whether you usually eat or snack in your kitchen, bedroom or sitting room, aim to get up and move to a different area or, if you’re lucky enough to have outdoor space, head out to the garden for a while.
Prepare to manage your feelings
Sometimes we need to distract ourselves from a feeling of wanting to binge; have a bath, paint your nails, read a book or go for a run. Staying social, even from a distance, is important during these times and a great diversion from food or comfort eating. Call or message a friend for a chat if you feel tempted to snack.
Overeating or emotional eating can be a passing phase, or it can become highly distressing behaviour. If you are feeling worried about your eating, seek support from a doctor or a registered specialist professional.
Communication is key, whether it’s with a treatment team or supportive loved ones and friends. Be aware of your feelings and don’t bottle them up; take time every day to reflect on how you are coping. Remember the acronym STOP: Stop, Take a step back, Observe and Proceed mindfully. Ensure you get plenty of sleep and keep a structure to your day and your meal times.
Be kind to yourself
Don’t beat yourself up. If you feel like you’ve engaged in disordered eating, notice what caused you to do it and use this information in a helpful way. Plan how you can move forward by identifying these challenges and naming helpful alternatives. Don’t forget to notice the positives: It helps to end your day by noticing one thing you enjoyed, one thing you are grateful for, and one thing that you achieved.
• This article was provided courtesy of Priory Wellbeing Center, Dubai.