BLOG BY Holly Roper MSc ANutr

Comfort Eating In The Time Of Coronavirus

With all of the current uncertainty in the world around COVID-19, it is absolutely understandable if you are feeling as though your anxiety is through the roof right now. 

During times of change, especially to our daily routine - like suddenly working from home, or self-isolating away from our family and friends - it is to be expected that our food habits and eating patterns may probably change[1]. We may now be waking up and going to sleep at different times, find ourselves being more sedentary, or simply can’t find the right ingredients we need in the supermarket! In addition, food is often the centre of many social occasions – think family BBQs, friends birthdays or date nights – and since these activities are off the table at the moment, it’s easy to find yourself lacking the motivation to rustle up something in the kitchen.

On top of this, it can be incredibly hard to navigate the food and nutrition space at the moment and as a Registered Associate Nutritionist, nearly every day I am coming across sponsored posts or ads claiming to ‘boost’ our immunity. Perfectly myth-busted by the British Dietetic Association here[2], it is strongly recommended to avoid taking foods or supplements that claim to boost our immune system and protect us from COVID-19. Instead, hand-washing and social distancing, as well as continuing to eat a healthy, balanced diet full of lots of colour is recommended.

Another aspect of our diet that you may, or may not, be noticing you are doing more of comfort eating (sometimes referred to as stress eating). This is a completely normal response to stress and anxiety and comfort eating is a common way of soothing or suppressing our emotions[3]. Often comfort eating consists of foods high in sugar and/or fat and these types of foods trigger dopamine and serotonin production (the happy hormones) and it’s this which in turn activates the reward and pleasure centres in our brain[4] - making us feel good!

The more we repeat this behaviour over time, the activation of brain reward pathways are eventually able to override signals of true hunger[5] and before we know it, we are reaching for a chocolate bar every time we are stressed – sometimes without even thinking about it!

It is in fact the psychoactive chemicals called andamines present in chocolate that stimulate the brain and thus, result in making us feel better[6].

In addition, self-isolation can make staying motivated with work and hobbies incredibly hard to keep up. Not having any plans to look forward or immediate deadlines to work towards can sometimes end up making us feel sluggish and fatigued. Therefore, it is unsurprising we turn to the calorie-dense, high-sugar foods in moments of anxiety and stress, as these foods provide us with that short-term energy boost[7] that we may be craving. And if that wasn’t enough – stress can actually cause changes in our cortisol levels, which has a knock-on effect on our appetite, leading to us craving high sugar and/or fat foods[8]!

So as you can see, comfort eating is totally normal during this time of global crisis. It is ok for our eating patterns to be all over the place right now - we should be kind to ourselves during this very unusual time. However, we can never have too many healthy and helpful coping strategies – I know I need all I can get right now. So, if this is for you, below are some quick and easy tips:

Get moving

Fitting in regular exercise such as a brisk 15 minute walk around the block or simply getting some fresh air can bring both physical and mental health benefit as it releases happy hormones within the brain[9]! Challenge: tomorrow try leaving your phone at home and allow yourself to escape the media and the news, even just for a little while. 

Try keeping a food and mood diary for one week

Sometimes we are unaware of the food we may be snacking on throughout the day, and this may become an issue if you are trying to watch your weight! Keeping note of what you eat, as well as making note of your mood at the time is a great way of helping to make sense of how you are feeling and potentially even identify trigger times[10].

Self-care

Take some time out of your day to do things for YOU that you love. This could be starting that book you’ve been meaning to start since Christmas, attempting yoga for the first time or colouring in while watching your favourite film.

Most importantly, remembering to be kind to yourself during this challenging time and finding comfort in the fact that it will not last forever. We are all in this together.

This post was written by Holly Roper, who is a recent MSc Human Nutrition graduate & is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition. Holly’s interests lie in health promotion & food sustainability and you can follow her on instagram @nutritionbyhols

References

1] https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4885.pdf

[2] https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/covid-19-corona-virus-advice-for-the-general-public.html?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialSignIn

[3]https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/uploads/documents/2018/9/emotional-overeating.pdf

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4150387/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4150387/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11971416

[7] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200331-how-to-eat-a-healthy-diet-when-work-from-home-coronavirus

[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/naked-truth/202003/how-curb-emotional-eating-during-the-covid-19-pandemic

[9]https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/uploads/documents/2018/9/emotional-overeating.pdf

[10]https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/uploads/documents/2018/9/emotional-overeating.pdf

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