Feeling emotionally wiped-out because of COVID-19? Are you hanging out in the kitchen like many others and reaching for comfort food — you are not alone. 

COVID-19 has affected the global population in many ways — including changes in our eating habits. For some people, getting through isolation has created substantial changes in their eating behaviors. The current global health crisis seems like a quagmire of negativity that encourages emotional eating.

According to experts, COVID-19 has created so many different anxieties and stresses that it isn’t surprising people are turning to food.  Dr. Nicole M. Avena, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says that the “COVID-19 pandemic has for many had a negative impact on eating habits.”

COVID-19 Creates Negative Emotions — Leads To Emotional Eating

COVID-19 is no respecter of persons. This means that anyone, regardless of nationality, age, or employment status can turn to food to relieve their negative emotions. Isolation and the boredom it brings is a reason for emotional eating. This happens because when a person has nothing to occupy their time, they often have a psychological need that is left unfilled.

For some people, the solution to this need is to consume food as a means of escaping their bored life. The restrictions that are thrust upon communities make it impossible for some people to maintain their normal routine. Watching television during mealtime confinement may also lead to inadequate dietary habits. This is especially true without an exercise regime.

The issue with emotional eating is that most of the food that is consumed to relieve negative emotions are usually high in calories, sugar, and fat. One of the main reasons some people tend to grab  these “comfort foods” is because they make them feel good. Our bodies produce endorphins which are often called the “happy” or “feel-good chemicals.”

Healthy carbs and fats are essential for the body. However, eating too many foods that contain unhealthy fats and bad carbs have a negative impact on our bodies. The old saying “moderation in all things,” rings true in this age of COVID-19.

Feeling Powerless During COVID-19 Isolation

Feeling good during this time of uncertainty feels impossible for some people. According to Sergio Pedemonte, CEO & Certified Personal Trainer at Your House Fitness, there are many people who are using food to overcome their feelings of powerlessness. “I’m sure more than a few people are feeling ‘powerless’ right now due to COVID-19. So it likely reflects on their plates.”

Some people are probably experiencing a host of emotions, not just powerlessness. Anxiety about buying healthy food on a limited income is very real for a high percentage of the global population. Guilt is another emotion that some parents or heads-of-households feel.

Households May Be Forced To Buy Unhealthy Food

There has always been an income diversity throughout countries., however, COVID-19 has created even more economic hardships for households. With all the restrictions and lockdown rules, access to fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t always possible.

The supply and demand of produce has become even more limiting. Processed foods tend to be cheaper than healthier food options. “Many people are relying more on processed boxed foods, and not doing regular shopping trips to purchase fresh fruits and veggies,” says Dr. Avena.

A “New Normal” Can Trigger Emotional Eating

Since the beginning of COVID-19, life as we once knew it has been replaced by a new normal.” This new reality for a lot of people is one that triggers both psychological and emotional responses,” Anju Mobin, a licensed nutritionist, and the Managing Editor of Best For Nutrition explains. This “may increase the risk of developing abnormal eating behaviors. It is well known how the experience of negative emotions can lead to overeating or emotional eating.”

Researchers have been studying this concept for years. Currently they are making the link between pandemic anxiety and emotional eating. 

The Science Behind Emotional Eating

At times of stress, our body has its own coping mechanism — endorphins and other neurotransmitters or brain chemicals. These brain chemicals are responsible for mood control and appetite. These chemicals are also known as opioid peptides. When an emotional event, such as the current pandemic, occurs the body’s natural endorphins can become desensitized.

Science has shown that when there is an alteration to the opioid peptides food cravings are increased. Sugary food, for instance, can evoke the same response as the mechanisms produced by our body’s central nervous system. This means that if we use food as a way to balance out the natural biochemistry there is a higher chance of developing food cravings. 

This is supported by a recent study which states that “Stress leads subjects toward overeating, especially comfort foods rich in sugar.” The study authors add that, “due to the negative experience of self-isolation, people are more prone to look for reward and gratification with food consumption, overriding other signals of satiety and hunger.” We need to learn the difference between being hungry and eating food to alleviate negative emotions.

Emotional Eating

As expected, unhealthy diets have serious long term effects and heighten the risks of developing diseases. Though medical conditions such as diabetes, depression, heart conditions, and obesity already exist, COVID-19 emotional eating adds another risk factor. A recent study notes that it “is critical to consider the impact of lifestyle habits, such as consumption of unhealthy diets, on the susceptibility to COVID-19 and recovery.”

Tips To Stop Stress Eating

There are several natural remedies and approaches that help reduce stress caused by COVID-19. Natural researched-backed strategies that are easily accessible include:

  • Supplements containing Omega 3; Super Vitamin D3; Magnesium; Probiotics and Antioxidants.
  • CBD/Hemp oil can help relieve stress that may be causing emotional eating.
  • Clear the fridge and cupboards of anything that is tempting, especially if it’s unhealthy.
  • It’s important not to deprive yourself of food as a means to avoid overeating during this stressful time. If the body doesn’t receive the right nourishment it will crave bad carbohydrates and other comfort food.
  • Keeping hydrated is one way of overcoming binge eating as water is good for overall health. Dehydration leads to mood disturbances that in turn leads to overeating the wrong type of food. 
  • Keep moving. Exercise is a great stress reliever, lifts moods, and distracts your mind from feeling bored.

As Anju Mobin suggests, the key to remain healthy during this time is, “Exploring your lifestyle changes and adapting to a healthy lifestyle is needed.” A healthy lifestyle is one that encourages more energy and fitness while reducing the risk of developing diseases. The foundations of a healthy lifestyle can be built into your daily habits.  

Lifestyle Changes

Examples of easy-to-adopt lifestyle changes include the following:

  • Practice meditation as its calming qualities can help reverse emotional eating tendencies.
  • A non-intrusive way of meditating is facilitated by using special meditation-headbands.
  • Recognize your triggers for emotionally-based eating.
  • Focus on positive coping skills (such as writing in a diary) to express negative feelings.
  • Stop using food as a distraction.
  • Eat a healthy well-balanced diet that will support an immune system capable of fighting COVID-19. Eating organic foods has many health benefits. Growing your own vegetables can be a new hobby during isolation. It stops boredom and provides fruit and vegetables that may be inaccessible because of lockdown.

Even though these are unpredictable times, according to Dr. Avena there is one thing we can control — our “diet and health via good nutrition.” Changing our behaviors by small and simple things will go a long way to curb emotional eating and easing the stress caused by COVID-19. 

Kat is a freelance writer.

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