If One Is Socially Isolated, Does One Really Care About Calories?

Social isolation has everyone bored and eating more than usual.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

The cascade of closings, cancellations, and self-imposed withdrawal from contact with anyone has implications that will probably resonate for decades. People are finding themselves dealing with problems ranging from trivial, i.e., suddenly having gray hair because you can’t go to the hairdresser, to being extremely isolated, lonely and scared. The imposition of sheltering in place brings a kind of security; if you are not in contact with anyone, then maybe you won’t get sick. But it also makes some of us vulnerable to some behaviors that we managed to avoid by working, having contact with an extended network of family and friends and religious communities, as well as entertainment resources. 

One consequence may be the inability to impose self-discipline to avoid excessive food intake and/or alcohol. Boredom is a potent trigger for overeating, and, when added to loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty, may result in prolonged periods of overeating. These same triggers can certainly overwhelm control of alcohol intake. Add to this the absence of support group meetings, weigh-ins, shared stories of failures or successes, and recommendations on how to manage a diet, or an alcohol withdrawal program. Also the temptation may be particularly hard to resist if the overeater or alcoholic lives alone. Not being allowed to go to work or interact with anyone outside of the household means no one is noticing what you are eating and drinking. Even buying large quantities of food or alcohol will go unnoticed because almost everyone else is doing so. Moreover, the anxiety of not knowing how long the social isolation will last, or how exposed we, and our families, are can be potent triggers for buying high-fat, sugary so-called comfort foods. Indeed, the justification can be found in watching media reports, or hearing about people one knows who are sick. As one of my friends said, quoting or possibly misquoting an old saying, “In time of stress, eat dessert first.”

The closure of all community resources, including playgrounds and libraries, coupled with warnings to decrease contact with others, creates a perfect storm for unleashing control over food intake. When one is stuck at the house with children and family members who must work from home (or whose work is temporarily suspended), it is hard to resist eating as a way of making time pass. Baking cookies or cakes can fill time, and eating them will fill more time. Snacking can be a diversion when tempers and tensions begin to rise. The impetus to remain on a diet or prevent further weight gain seems irrelevant when there is so much uncertainty about when all the aspects of life will return to normal.

Social isolation is also a potent trigger for isolated drinking. Without the necessity of meeting any obligations and, for some, without anyone aware of whether alcohol is being consumed excessively, and without support groups to attend, it may be very hard for some alcoholics in recovery to maintain abstinence.

And yet, this is the time when we should be doing all we can to maintain our health. We all know the drill about avoiding contact with others, cleaning surfaces, wearing gloves, etc. But we have to be concerned about our general health as well. Eating or drinking indiscriminately may, or will, lead to an exacerbation of underlying medical problems or cause new ones. Weight gain must be resisted, especially by anyone with health problems related to excess weight such as high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, and orthopedic problems. Excessive drinking will assuredly also lead to serious health risks.

Who is going to take care of these medical problems if they arise or worsen over the next several weeks?

Outpatient visits are halted in many doctor’s offices. Hospital emergency rooms are focusing on those coming in seriously ill with the novel coronavirus. Obviously, care will be given to the sick, regardless of cause. But if we choose to indulge in behaviors that may awaken underlying health issues that were under control, like high blood pressure, we may not receive the medical attention we would have gotten when life was normal.

Many of the suggestions for preventing weight gain and losing weight, so difficult to follow because of lack of time, can be followed now. There is plenty of time to make soups or casseroles filled with slow-cooking lentils or beans. There is plenty of time to construct multi-vegetable salads, or cooked vegetable dishes. Never really learned how to cook fish or tofu? It's the best time ever to launch these new recipes.

Want to make your own whole-grain breads or cook polenta? Are you going to experiment with smoothies from your kitchen rather than the expensive health-food restaurant? Have you ever made chocolate pudding using fat-free milk, or made your own rice bowls? The Internet has recipes for anything you want to make.

No time to exercise during life before the virus? There is plenty of time now. Online exercise programs are so abundant that you can try out several to see which suits you. So far walking has not been forbidden, and getting outside and seeing others (not too close) is reassuring. Animal shelters are looking for foster homes right now. Taking care of a pet in need will bring more comfort than the best chocolate chip cookie.

Use the phone. Reach out to those who can help you refrain from drinking or bingeing. Check out if there are online support groups, since no one can meet in person. Call relatives or friends you haven’t spoken to for months or years to decrease your verbal isolation.

Ironically, this virus has given us the gift of time. In this time of such uncertainty, it is a gift worth accepting.