Have you ever gone to the kitchen simply because you were bored? Do you find yourself taking more trips to the refrigerator during the pandemic? Have you ever dreamt of all the delicious tasty foods you could be eating, even though you weren’t even remotely hungry? Well you are definitely not alone. As the world tries to adapt to the crazy COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are feeling increasingly stressed. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that due to the pandemic; notions of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future are becoming much more prevalent and are occurring more frequently as a result of social distancing requirements.
When we encounter a stressful situation, it’s very likely that we could experience changes in our eating patterns. This behavior is described as “emotional or stress eating”. It can be characterised by either increasing our food intake or having no appetite at all. This is done in a conscious or unconscious effort in order to alleviate these adverse emotions we are experiencing. Some people are more likely to binge-eat, which can be described as the extreme increase in food intake in a short period of time and lack self control. Whereas others may restrict their food intake as it gives them a sense of control in a time of uncertainty. Moreover, eating serves as a source of distraction for some people and is a common coping mechanism to deal with stress. Stress is mostly associated with changes in the hormone cortisol, which is an essential part of energy regulation in our bodies. We tend to eat more fat and sugar-based foods because our body requires more energy when we are stressed. Emotional eating can result in physical discomfort, guilt, weight gain, and ultimately fails to alleviate our stress levels. Additionally, this type of eating can result in a vicious, self reinforcing cycle that needs to be broken. If we aren’t able to address and accurately pinpoint the reasons for our poor eating habits, this binge eating behavior will continue to persist.
One of the potential triggers of this type of behavior is social isolation. This pandemic is known to enhance isolation. Not being able to connect with others can exacerbate or increase the risk of relapsing. Furthermore, feelings of loneliness could result in boredom which could cause the person to start binge eating. Another potential trigger is seeing empty grocery shelves. By observing food shortages on the news, it generates a fear of “lack of food”. This makes people feel as though they do not have the opportunity to buy food, so they anticipate this food shortage by buying things in excess. Moreover, a very important trigger that heavily influences our eating behaviors is social media. By constantly reading and viewing dreadful news on our social media platforms, it could very well result in increased feelings of unease and anxiety. This makes us turn to food to self soothe.
Another critical point is that the level of physical activity that we normally participate in has reduced at an alarming rate since March 2020. Because of social isolation and house-bound quarantining, people have lost the motivation to work out. This makes it much harder to increase our level of physical activity. In addition, this lack of physical activity can lead to poorer eating habits which result in feelings of discomfort and anxiety. This is another vicious cycle which many people find themselves unable to break free from today.
In order to improve our eating habits, we should start by being more conscious of our feelings by acknowledging which triggers are responsible for our stress eating. By identifying these key areas, we can gradually learn how to separate these negative feelings from our food consumption. We can begin by reaching out to others for social support during these tough times. And in order to increase our physical activity, we need to stay clear from typical “structured workouts”, which cause even more stress. Our exercise should be flexible and modifiable based on our current situation. This will allow us to get in some physical activity without being bound by a strict schedule. In turn, this will help our bodies tremendously by alleviating our feelings of anxiety and reducing the need to turn to food for comfort.
Most likely a big handful of us have seen influencers, actors, and singers share their before-after pandemic posts on instagram, showcasing their dramatic weight change. This brings the question as to why we can't normalize people having different ways of coping with stress? Majority of the population have either completely lost motivation or have become more disciplined and structured than before the pandemic. It is important to remember that food can only offer short-term relief. There is only a short spike in chemical releases of serotonin and dopamine which are associated with eating certain foods. However, this small chemical change is unlikely to help us cope with stress and anxiety in the long-term.
We need to find other ways to manage stress and negative emotions. It is impossible to know how long this pandemic will last, so using emotional eating to reduce negative emotions is not a sustainable method to reduce stress. One way we can help ourselves is by genuinely questioning if we are truly hungry or just bored. When reaching out for food, ask yourself, “am I really hungry, or do I just want to eat in order to feel happy?”
By recognising that we eat for comfort, we must take measures to modify this behavior so that when we feel stressed we have healthier ways to deal with it. First one must acknowledge that there is a problem with their eating habits and this on its own can be extremely difficult to accept. Everybody has varying responses to stress and anxiety as well as different coping mechanisms. Emotional eating needs to be controlled in order to preserve our health. However, it is completely normal for our bodies to fluctuate over time. Quarantine 15 is real. Lose the shame, not the weight gain.
Casarella , Jennifer. “Tips on How to Stop Emotional Eating.” How to Stop Emotional Eating From Stress, WebMD, 11 May 2020, www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/ss/slideshow-stop-emotional-eating.