If you’ve found yourself “eating your feelings” during COVID, you’re not alone. Several studies conducted in recent months have shown us that pandemic weight gain is common, likely caused by a mix of lifestyle changes connected to diet and exercise. And while research is limited, one recent study of women aged 18-39 found that as many as half of the study participants were emotional eaters, with chronic stress due to the pandemic further aggravating that pattern. (“Emotional eating” is a scientific term, defined as “the tendency to overeat as a coping mechanism for regulating and reducing negative emotions, such as depression, anxiety, and stress”.)
Liana Waybright, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in northern Virginia, reports that many of her clients have been experiencing changes in their eating patterns within the last year as lockdowns have gone into effect.
Here are a few science-backed guidelines to keep in mind if you’re struggling to manage your own eating patterns right now.
Make sure you aren’t under-eating at certain times in the day.
While it may seem counterintuitive, Waybright suggests that one way to avoid uncontrolled or emotional eating is to avoid harboring a restrictive mindset around food or going too long without eating. This can have the opposite effect of actually making you feel hungrier, because on a biological level your body is asking for certain nutrients, and we tend to overcompensate when this happens.
It may be tempting to forgo meals while you hop from one Zoom call to the next, but this can have a detrimental effect on your ability to manage hunger. Waybright explains: “When our blood sugar levels are low, there is a whole host of hormones and body responses that will happen to make us seek out food.”
See if you can have breakfast within two hours of waking up, and aim for three meals and two snacks throughout the day. If that feels like way more than you could manage, Waybright recommends, at the very least, that you check in with your hunger cues and energy levels every three hours. When you nourish your body on a regular schedule and keep your blood sugar regulated, this can prevent that ravenous “must inhale all food in my kitchen immediately” feeling — especially when you’re unwinding or looking to soothe yourself after a stressful day.
Ditch the diet mentality, or calling certain foods ‘bad’ or off-the-table.
“Will power only goes so far. At a certain point, our guard is going to be down,” said Waybright. From a psychological perspective, telling yourself you can’t have a certain food will likely end up in an overeating-guilt-shame cycle. She recommends avoiding the urge to pit foods against each other or categorize entire food groups as ‘unhealthy’. If you want to have a treat, she said, just go ahead and enjoy it without the guilt.
Eat meals and snacks with a mix of macronutrients.
Carbohydrates, proteins and fats — everything we eat is made up of these three macronutrients (you may have heard them called macros for short). We tend to overcomplicate this, but see if you can simplify by thinking about your meals and snacks as food-group pairings and different colors of foods. “Plan meals that have a nice balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats,” said Waybright. “That could be as simple as upgrading your snack of an apple to apple slices dipped in almond butter.” Getting a mix of these macronutrients throughout the day is a great way to manage blood sugar, keep hunger in check and make sure that you are getting the nutrition that you need.
Make sure you’re sleeping enough.
Studies have shown that there is a biological connection between sleep deprivation and weight gain, caused by study participants’ altered endocannabinoid levels — a chemical signal that affects appetite and the brain’s reward system. In other words, being sleep deprived increases our hedonic, pleasurable food intake, which tends to be energy-dense and high-calorie foods. If your sleep routine has taken a nose-dive during the pandemic or you’re finding yourself up at all hours checking the news, it’s probably time for a sleep-hygiene checkup.
Get your heart rate up.
Aside from the basic notions of energy input and output, moving every day is key for folks who have been experiencing stress-related hunger or changes in appetite. Why? Because we know that aerobic exercise — movement that gets our heart rate up like jumping jacks or running — can change the levels of hormones that drive our state of hunger. Moving our bodies is not only important to offset the potential for increased snacking, but it also helps to regulate our perceived hunger signals as well.
Remember: be kind to yourself. It would be bizarre if your stress levels hadn’t changed in response to the current events of the world, but if your eating patterns have become particularly distressing to you, resist the urge to crack down or be harsh with yourself. Instead, see where you can add in nutritious snacks or meals, with more variety, along with more rest and movement to help your body to regulate.