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October 20, 2021

Managing Stress Eating During “Lockdown”

by Mindy McCullough, MS, RDN, LDN

March 2020 is when we felt our world change.  COVID-19, social distancing, and lockdown all became normal terms in our lives.  The media describes these times as unprecedented.  Many experienced major shifts in their lives including job loss, work from home transition, virtual schooling, and social isolation.

While at home we tried to cope by picking up hobbies to occupy our time and minds.  We turned to baking bread, re-growing vegetable scraps, and even dusting off those knitting needles.  As time at home has continued throughout another year, stress levels have stayed elevated.  Stress from social isolation, the blurred line of home and work, juggling parenting responsibilities, and uncertainty has taken a toll on all of us.

Stress can affect our lives and health in many ways, especially when it is prolonged.  During this pandemic many normal coping mechanisms have been taken away, such as exercising at the gym, getting alone time at a movie, or meeting friends for an outing, leaving us with few options as an outlet for stress.  Instead we reached for what was near, food, alcohol, and Netflix to take our minds off of the current situation.

Stress can impact our immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems2.  This can cause some people to experience digestive symptoms, headaches, fatigue, or unhappiness.  Prolonged or chronic stress can contribute to other health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, depression or anxiety2.

A survey of over 8,000 adults in different countries found that during the pandemic people became more sedentary1.  People also reported that they were more likely to indulge in their food cravings, such as sugary snack foods and sugar sweetened beverages.  The survey found that these changes were common despite which country the person called home1.

Emotional eating can be used to cope with negative or stressful emotions.  Sometimes it is an involuntary response to feelings that trigger stress, fear, or challenges.  Here are some of our top tips to help handle stress eating during the pandemic and beyond.

Try to keep a daily routine:

The pandemic threw off daily routines.  It is important that you try to establish a new one.  A solid daily routine should incorporate physical activity, sleep, meals, and safe socialization3.  Try to have regular snack and meal times as this ensures you are eating enough throughout the day and decreases trips to the kitchen.

Listen to your body’s hunger and satiety cues:

Despite creating a snack and meal time schedule, it is still important to listen to your body’s hunger and satiety (fullness) cues.  Some days you may not feel as hungry as others and that is ok and completely normal.  Make sure to have nutrient dense and nourishing foods on hand.  Keep fruits and vegetables within easy access to snack on or add to meals.  Pre-washing and cutting can be helpful.

Get enough sleep:

Just one more episode can easily lead to night after night of going to bed later than planned.  Getting inadequate sleep has been shown to be linked to over-eating and cravings for high-calorie foods.  Sleep needs are based on each individual, however most adults do need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night3.  If you are struggling to get enough sleep each night try implementing a sleep schedule, make sure to limit caffeine, and be mindful of your use of electronics prior to bedtime3.

Move your body everyday:

The pandemic changed what we traditionally think of as exercise and for many our homes and the outdoors have become our gyms.  Moving your body can help you feel more energized and decrease stress levels. Take advantage of the fall season in North Carolina and get outside.  Enjoy a new greenway or park, meet a friend for a walk, go for a family bike ride, the possibilities are endless.  Don’t forget that the pandemic has made at home workout programs more readily-available and some are even free (Fit On app, Nike Training Camp app, etc.).

Make cooking fun:

Even if you are living alone, you can make cooking fun again.  Pick a new recipe you wouldn’t normally make to try once a week.  Break out the fancy dishes and have fun plating it.  Presentation of a meal alone can make it feel more special.  If able, involve the family in meal preparation.  This can help to create healthy habits in children and act as a bonding activity for the whole family4.

Identify your triggers:

Triggers are things in your life that can result in stress.  Often these triggers result in stress or discomfort, which can lead us to emotional eating5.  If you are unsure of what your triggers are, keeping a food diary can help.  Record your emotions in the food diary when eating or throughout the day to help you identify your triggers.  This will help you plan ahead for difficult moments and build in ways to cope that do not involve food.

Incorporate ways to manage stress:

It is important to have multiple avenues to help you manage or cope with stress.  Physical activity is a great way to manage stress; however, it is not always something we can do in the moment.  Try creating a list of activities that bring you joy and calm your mind.  This list might include journaling, reading, crafting, meditation, phoning a friend, playing with your dog, etc.

Be kind to yourself:

It is important to be kind to yourself and avoid beating yourself up.  Feeling guilty or ashamed over your actions can continue the emotional eating cycle3.  Some of the above coping techniques can be used to help you avoid being too hard on yourself.  Having a support person or persons can also be extremely useful when you are feeling guilty or ashamed for your actions.  They can often offer an outside perspective.

Ask for help:

If you are struggling to cope with stress and emotional eating, ask for help.  It could be beneficial to mention what you are going through to your healthcare provider.  They may refer you to a therapist to help you work through some of the root causes of your stress.  A registered dietitian referral may also be beneficial to help with emotional eating and choosing nourishing foods.  Many insurance plans offer coverage for these specialists.

 We hope these tips help you navigate this stressful time. Enjoyed this article?  Do not forget to share with friends and subscribe today to be notified of new posts!

Resources:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/health/many-of-us-are-stress-eating-because-of-the-pandemic.html
  2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress
  3. https://brighamhealthhub.org/managing-stress-and-emotional-eating-during-covid-19/#:~:text=Listen%20to%20your%20body%20and,emotional%20eating%20and%20binge%20eating.
  4. https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/easy-affordable-and-healthy-eating-tips-during-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-outbreak
  5. https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/tips-to-reduce-emotional-eating-during-times-of-stress.h13-1593780.html
  6. https://www.georgeinstitute.org/profiles/top-tips-for-healthy-eating-during-lock-down

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