If your relationship with food has been, err, strained since COVID-19, you’re not alone.
While it’s OK and normal to stress eat or track your intake to safely lose weight from time to time, it’s also important to pay attention to potentially worrisome changes in your eating habits like overeating or cutting too many calories.
Here’s what you need to know about the impact the pandemic could have on your approach to food and your body, plus how to deal with expert insight from doctors and mental health experts.
COVID-19 has had a widespread effect on our lives — including the way we eat. An April 2021 study of 720 young people found there’s been a slight increase in problematic eating behaviors since COVID-19, which could lead to an eating disorder if left unchecked.
“Eating disorders have been linked with a number of factors that were heightened during the onset of the pandemic — such as difficulties dealing with uncertainty, stress, depressive symptoms, food insecurity, financial difficulties, and social isolation,” says Melissa Simone, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Project EAT.
According to the study, about 6 in 10 people said they struggled with unhealthy efforts to control their weight, while another 1 in 10 reported binge-eating. Poor stress management, symptoms of depression, and financial difficulties were all significant risk factors for these outcomes, notes Dr. Simone.
As COVID-19 vaccines have rolled out and cases have begun to fall, life’s gone back to some new “normal.” But if troubling habits or feelings are lingering, you can get back on track.
Here are five ways your relationship to food may have changed for the worse and how to recover:
Ever find yourself at the bottom of a chip bag with a full belly but little memory of actually eating? “Mindless eating is a double whammy,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. Physically, it’s easy to overeat and gain weight. And mentally, food’s just not as satisfying when you’re not fully present to enjoy it.
What to do: “Commit to writing down every single bite consumed … even if only for a few days,” advises Rickel. Use a food journal or app like MyFitnessPal and put easy-to-eat foods in hard-to-reach places such as the top shelf of the pantry. When you do get a hankering, try to reach for nutrient-dense, filling comfort foods like avocado toast or warm oatmeal with fresh fruit, adds Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD.
In general, many of us are simply eating more than before, thanks to pandemic-related stressors and being stuck at home. But “a healthy relationship with food requires the ability to recognize hunger and satiety,” says Dr. Aderonke Omotade, a board-certified internal medicine physician and psychiatrist specializing in weight management and stigma. Not knowing when to stop could lead to weight gain, dissatisfaction with your body, and off-kilter eating patterns.
The fix: Again, consider logging your intake for a while, try mindful eating practices like using your five senses, and make a list of things to do each day to avoid grazing out of boredom. When you relearn to listen to hunger pangs and fullness cues, you can enjoy snacks and meals without overeating.
While it’s OK to eat a little less if you’re moving less, stress can also lead to a loss of appetite and fewer calories in. Sound familiar? Make sure you’re getting the energy you need by creating a healthy eating schedule of small, frequent meals and snacks, says Dobbins. To run well, your body needs nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins like chicken and turkey, and healthy fats such as fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
If an empty pantry or tight budget is the root of the problem, reach out for support from a food assistance program in your area, Dobbins advises. You might be surprised to learn you’re eligible for help, and many offer wholesome grab-and-go meals and kitchen staples.
It’s absolutely normal and human to reach for comfort food when you’re stressed out, says Rickel. But when eating is the only coping mechanism you have, the harm from excess calories and foods high in sugar, fat and salt can outweigh the benefits.
“As simple as it seems, generating a list of alternative activities you can do to provide a boost in mood, distract yourself from stress, or take a break from unpleasant situations or activities can be a game-changer,” says Rickel. Sure, you might still end up stress-eating. But if you commit to checking a few activities off your list first, it could become easier to opt for healthier ways of coping over time.
With disrupted routines, fewer distractions, and a surge in chatter around COVID-induced weight gain, it’s no wonder some people are veering into disordered eating territory. If you suspect this is happening, the first step is to reach out for help as you would for any other healthcare issue, says Jillian Lampert, PhD, RD, chief strategy officer of The Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment center in Wexford, Pennsylvania. Confide in a trusted loved one, use the National Eating Disorders Association’s free screening tool, call its helpline at 1-800-931-2237, or text ‘NEDA’ to 741741 for a confidential chat.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our lives, but there are ways to cope with shifts in the way you feel about your eating habits, weight and body. Small lifestyle changes can help you stop over- or under-eating, find healthy ways to manage stress, and get the nutrition you need. For help, don’t hesitate to lean on loved ones or contact a healthcare professional such as a primary care physician or registered dietitian.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.