How to Stop Food Cravings During the Pandemic

Science suggests that mindfulness can help binge eating disorders.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

 AaronAmat/iStock Photo
Source: AaronAmat/iStock Photo

This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D. 

Eating to soothe our worries is a natural coping strategy in times of stress. And with the new variants of COVID-19 emerging, confusion over the rollout of vaccines, and intermittent stay-at-home orders limiting our options for managing anxiety, it’s no wonder that we’re looking to food as a source of comfort or reward now more than ever. But this coping mechanism may be putting you at risk. Here's how to prevent disordered eating or an eating disorder from becoming your pandemic takeaway.

Certain foods can remind us of feeling safe and connected to people we love. They serve as a comforting or helpful temporary fix when we are troubled. Perhaps your doting grandmother brought over homemade chocolate chip cookies when you were upset as a child, and now, as an adult, you may crave them whenever you’re in a stressful situation. The warm memories surrounding the cookies may benefit you as much as the satisfaction you experience from the taste. 

However, as pandemic related stressors such as health, finances, relationships, careers, and so on pile up over many months, a natural response can unintentionally turn into an enduring habit or an eating disorder for those who are genetically vulnerable. In The Binge Eating Prevention Workbook, we share this scientific finding that explains how an over-reliance on certain types of foods along with a pattern of loss of control eating can lead to changes in the brain's reward system:

Foods, particularly those high in sugar or fat, activate the reward pathways in the brain. Studies have found that prolonged binge eating can alter the brain’s opioid and dopamine pathways, two brain systems that regulate how humans respond to reward. Because of these changes, the brain may develop patterns that make abstaining from high fat and sugary foods feel unpleasant, driving people to look for some relief by binge eating.

Fortunately, you can break the cycle of seeking out comfort food and stress-eating as your go-to coping mechanism and move toward healthy eating instead. All it takes is a commitment to eating mindfully, an uncomplicated practice that simply involves paying attention to what, when, and why you’re eating.

 Nelosa/iStock Photo
Source: Nelosa/iStock Photo

A recent study of 211 university students in England found that mindfulness plays a key role in positive choices around eating. The study participants filled out questionnaires about their motives for consuming highly palatable foods (chocolate, cookies, muffins, etc.) in four categories: as a social activity, due to pressure from others, as a coping mechanism, or as a reward. They also responded to questions about mindfulness, self-compassion, and eating behaviors. An analysis showed that those who practiced mindfulness, particularly present-moment awareness, as well as self-compassion, had fewer urges to eat when not hungry. 

Mindfulness can help you, too, incorporate more moderation and intuitive eating habits, manage triggers that are not based on stomach hunger, and respond to physical cues of hunger and satiety. Here’s how to stop food cravings with mindfulness exercises :

  • Breathe mindfully. Grounding yourself helps center your attention in the present moment, creating a calm mind that’s more aware and better equipped to stave off cravings. With your eyes gently open or closed, take a few deep breaths. Breathe in to the count of 3, pause for 1 count, then breathe out to the count of 5. Repeat this three or four times to bring yourself into the now.

  • Have self-compassion. Treat yourself as you would a good friend, with patience and kindness. Start with mind and body habits: use soothing breathing for your body and practice an internal dialogue that is characterized by friendly expressions and gentle tones of voice. Don’t judge yourself harshly for making mistakes or having difficult feelings. Remind yourself that others experience hardships too. If you act on an urge to binge eat, kindly forgive yourself and gently recommit to healthy eating behaviors next time. Self-compassion is about trusting your own process as you become more of the version of yourself that you want to be.

  • Engage your senses. Being aware of how your food tastes, smells, looks and whether it’s satisfying can change your relationship with food to align with mindful, intuitive eating principles. Observe how you feel in your body and mind after eating, and notice portion size. Ultimately, a good healthy diet is flexible and balanced—and it gives you energy, nourishment, and pleasure. 

  • Accept cravings, physical hunger, and comfortable fullness. Check whether, at the moment you are preparing a meal or snack, your desire to eat is prompted by emotions or your environment; if it is, get curious about what your body, rather than your cravings, urges, thoughts or feelings, is telling you. Observe whether or not physical hunger cues are showing up in your body: emptiness in your stomach, a slight headache, a dip in energy, impatience, or something else. Whatever you notice, observe it without judgment. Accept it. Also pay attention to your body’s fullness cues that communicate when you are satisfied or comfortably full.
  • Expand self-care options. While you may be biologically or psychologically motivated to stress eat, noticing that you have more choices to care for yourself will reduce your risk of developing disordered eating or an eating disorder—and make you more resilient. Begin by brainstorming about activities, relationships, and thoughts that help you feel comforted or rewarded when you need it most. Make your personal list and keep it in a place where you can access it easily.
  • Surf the urges. Paradoxically, accepting that experiencing an urge is beyond your control can improve your ability to gain control over them. Start by noticing your cravings and desire to use food or to binge eat as a way to cope. Without judgment, accept the urge as beyond your control. Be willing to experience it, to surf the urge as if it were a wave. Focus on an alternative thought, feeling, activity, or your breath. Ride the urge until it dissipates.

Keep in mind that recovery from binge eating is a process, not an event. Let 2021 be a year of intentional choices and empowering actions. Binge eating disorders do not have to be an unwanted outcome of this pandemic. Lean into the natural connection between your mind and body as you practice how to be kind to yourself to stop binge eating, and start mindful, intuitive eating. Committing to eat mindfully can enhance your resilience. Even if you can't control some of the stressors related to the pandemic, you can control how you respond to food cravings.

References

Dingemans, A., Danner U., and Parks. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in binge eating disorder: A review. Nutrients, 9, 1,274. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9111274.

Giannopoulou, I., Kotopoulea-Nikolaidi, M., Daskou, S., Martyn, K. & Patel, A. (2020). Mindfulness in eating is inversely related to binge eating and mood disturbances in university students in health-related disciplines. Nutrients, 12(2), 396.

Keyte, R., Egan, H., Mantzios, M. (2020). How does mindful eating without non-judgement, mindfulness and self-compassion relate to motivations to eat palatable foods in a student population? Nutritional Health, 26, 1, 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/0260106019888367.

Kristeller, J., Wolever, R. Q. & Sheets, V. (2014.) Mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT) for binge eating: A randomized clinical trial. Mindfulness, 5, 282–297.

Krohmer, K., Schag, K., Dresler, T., Zipfel, S., & Giel, K. E. (2015). Emotion regulation model in binge eating disorder and obesity: A systematic review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 49, 125–134.

McKay, M., Wood, J. & Brantley, J. (2007). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860390129863.

Mathes, W. F., K. A. Brownley, X. Mo, and C. M. Bulik. 2009. “The Biology of Binge Eating.” Appetite 52: 545–553.

Marson, G. & Keenan-Miller, D. (2020). The Binge Eating Prevention Workbook: An eight-week individualized program to overcome compulsive eating and make peace with food. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.