So there’s a pandemic raging outside and you’re locked in your residence with a larger stockpile of food than usual. You find yourself struggling with emotional or stress eating. What should you do?
Now is a time of overwhelming stress. Turning to food is a reasonable coping strategy, as long as it is not your only one. There are different strategies that may help you cope with the stress of the pandemic and the emotional eating that may occur as a result.
The age of Coronavirus is a tough one. The world hasn’t experienced a pandemic like this since 1918. No one alive is prepared to deal with this, and no one knows what to expect. It is a time of overwhelming stress. People are dying. You may have lost your job, had to work longer hours on the front lines, been sent home from college, been separated from loved ones, or been quarantined at home with people with whom you have tense relationships.
You may be bored, stressed or lonely. Shopping for food has become harder, and the privileged among us have likely stocked up more than usual to reduce trips to the supermarket. You may not be used to having access to a stocked kitchen around the clock. What’s more, the reduced structure to your day has disrupted your routine. If you find that you’re often in the kitchen, thinking about your next meal, eating more than you think you need, or stress eating—we promise that you’re not alone. Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW, eating disorder therapist with lived experience offers calming advice.
“Emotional eating” is not a clinical term, but a term we use to describe the phenomenon of eating in response to an emotional state, rather than hunger. People naturally eat for a wide variety of reasons—emotional states among them—and this is perfectly normal. However, emotional eating has become a loaded phrase. We live in a culture that chastises us for eating in response to anything other than hunger. Diet culture would have us believe that any eating in response to emotion is a huge problem. This is a myth. It may become a problem, however, if it’s your only coping mechanism. And research shows that emotional eating is more common among those who do not eat enough. That’s right! Those who do not eat enough for their energy requirements may find food comparatively more rewarding and contributing to increased emotional eating as well as binge eating.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following symptoms, it could be an eating disorder: You find that obsessive thoughts of food prevent you from doing other things, you are eating an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time and feel out of control when doing so, you are skipping meals, you are eliminating food groups (without a medical reason), you are throwing up, you are using laxatives, you are exercising excessively, whether this is in response to current stressors or something that has been brewing for some time, please learn more about these disorders.
At this stressful time, people who have previously recovered from an eating disorder or disordered eating may find themselves slipping into past behaviors. This is not surprising and is nothing of which to be ashamed. Progress is not linear under the best of circumstances. Relapses are more common during times of stress, and a pandemic is a challenge on an unprecedented scale. Take some time to think through the strategies that helped you during your recovery. Plan to reengage with those strategies. Some things you might consider include meal planning, keeping a food journal, talking to a support person, or reconnecting with your therapist or dietitian.
Here are some tools you can take advantage of when taking steps to alleviate the effects of emotional eating.
First, practice acceptance. If food is what gets you through this time, it’s not the worst thing—actually, it may be good self-care. You may be afraid of gaining weight during your time sheltered at home. You needn’t feel shame for not wanting to gain weight. Our fatphobic society tells us that gaining weight is scary. But when you survive the pandemic you will have done well for yourself—any weight gain is irrelevant. Your body and your body weight will change throughout your lifetime. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes; maybe your pre-pandemic weight was suppressed or maybe you were stressed and needed to gain weight to survive. Maybe it will go back down when you return to “normal life” and maybe it won’t. You have value no matter what your weight.
You do not need to reduce the amount you are eating just because you are now quarantined at home. Our diet-obsessed society sends many messages that eating less is better and that we are more virtuous if we restrict what we eat. Many people are posting on social media about trying to prevent weight gain during social distancing. However, such dietary restriction often backfires leading to emotional eating, binge eating, and the opposite of what’s intended—weight gain. You cannot control your body’s weight long term. By eating enough regularly throughout the day you will reduce episodes of stress or unplanned eating. You will also likely help stabilize your blood sugar and regulate your mood. Unless you have medical-related dietary restrictions, meals should generally include all the major macronutrient groups (starch, protein, fat, and fruit or vegetable).
If eating has been your only coping strategy, it is good to add new tools to your toolbox. Consider other activities that can soothe, distract, or discharge some nervous energy. These will be unique to each individual. Some ideas for coping activities that you can consider include journaling, painting, calling or texting a friend, going for a walk (while maintaining social distancing), doing a guided meditation, or taking a bath.
During this time of social distancing, it’s more important than ever to maintain our connections. Make sure you stay in contact with friends, family, colleagues, and coworkers. Fortunately, with phones and the internet, there are many options for doing so. Before the pandemic we worried that people were using screens to isolate; now we recognize they offer amazing opportunities to connect. Get creative—have a Face time gathering or a group meal, have a group Zoom meet up or connect with friends during a shared online workout or Netflix watch party.
Eating more than you intended may be distressing. Beating yourself up about it only increases your distress.
According to Rosenbluth, “If you are feeling discomfort and guilt after a binge, please offer yourself self-compassion and eat the next meal regardless of what you ate earlier. It’s OK if you’re turning to food more than usual right now to cope. It’s OK if you gain weight. You are still worthy and valuable.”
You may feel the need to restrict or engage in other compensatory behaviors in order to try to mitigate the impact of your eating. Don’t! These behaviors only perpetuate a cycle of disordered or binge eating. You also don’t need to increase your exercise to make up for being more sedentary now. Even if others around you are talking about their diets or increasing their exercise, you do not need to. Let your body regulate itself.
Now, more than ever is a time to try to protect your mental wellbeing. Take this time to slow down and rest. Try to nourish yourself, get enough sleep, and be gentle with yourself.
You do not have to go through this time alone. Even if you live alone or have limited means, there are resources and supports available to you. Many therapists and dietitians and eating disorder treatment programs are providing online services and there are several options for low-cost or free support. Nonprofits, including the National Eating Disorders Association and the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness, both maintain directories and provide treatment referrals.
As the world attempts to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are feeling increasingly stressed, which often leads to emotional eating. When and if you experience unwanted eating behavior because of strong negative emotion, it is helpful to acknowledge and experience your feelings away from food, understand your emotional eating triggers, and make conscious choices about what you will eat and when. Get and give as much social support as you can from loved ones and start fresh if you have an undesirable or unpleasant eating experience.
This is going to be a stressful phase of life for millions of people around the world, so practicing deliberate eating behavior that promotes physical and emotional health is critical.