How to Stop Overeating (After) the Pandemic

The lockdowns won't last forever: Here's how to stop overeating when it ends!

Posted Jun 07, 2020

I'm sure you know if you ate badly during quarantine, you're certainly not alone! 

"Covid Pounds," "Covid Belly," "Covid Fifteen" (fifteen pounds gained during quarantine) have become pretty standard jokes these days.  For many people the combination of fear, boredom, disruption of routine, loneliness (for singles), and/or lack of private time (for couples and families) seems to have been soothed by a constant influx of food, food, and more food.   

So how are we to return to normality after months of disrupted habits and a more-expanded-than-you'd-like-to-admit waistline?  My experience in getting hundreds of clients back on track after months-long periods of serious overeating suggests that most people's inclination is to set the bar much too high at first.  Most are in a hurry to reverse weight gain fast, so they adopt a serious diet and exercise routine which strains their body and their appetite.  

The problem with this is it may signal our brain we live in an environment of constantly alternating feast and famine, and the brain may try to compensate by suggesting you binge again when hunger and deprivation exceed a certain level.  This can trap us in a seemingly endless loop, alternating between indulgence and deprivation, as opposed to steady, reliable, healthy nutrition that allows our bodies to find their ideal weights on their own timeline.

Indeed, this is why most experts on overeating are very concerned with clients over-restricting in an effort to make up for previous indulgences. 

Instead, I suggest we begin with one simple rule.  What's the smallest, easiest thing you can do to begin turning the ship around and getting it moving in the right direction?  Not a rigid "diet" that will cause you to lose all the weight you've gained during the pandemic in one month, but something that starts the scale moving ever so slightly downwards instead of continuing to inch up. 

For example, perhaps you could stop going back for seconds.  Maybe you could always put your fork down between bites.  Or stop eating in front of electronic screens.  Or take a picture of every meal before you eat it.  Or only eat chocolate on Saturdays.  Something simple.  Anything!  But it should be something you'll actually do.  Something not too onerous, but which you know will make a significant difference in your health, well-being, and eventually your weight. 

The idea is to ask yourself what's going to give you the biggest bang for the buck and just get the train moving.  Once you're back on track for a few weeks you can ramp things up a bit, but try just one simple and easy rule at first.  You've got to go to kindergarten before you can go to college, right?

Now, there's another much different situation some people are facing as the pandemic ends.  It's less common, but some people have actually been eating better during quarantine.  The sudden lack of restaurant outings; and significantly enhanced, regular control over their food inventory, eating environment, and food-prep time gave them just the opportunity they always wanted to "level up" their eating.  They stepped up, took control, and may have even lost 10 to 15 pounds.

Unfortunately, the upcoming lifting of social restrictions and soon-to-be-had opportunities to gather has left them frightened about relapsing after lockdown.  They very much like their new selves, enhanced energy, feeling of mastery, and they fear going right back to old habits.  If this describes you, here's what I recommend:

  • First, articulate very specifically what you've been doing that's been working better for you during quarantine.  If you had to put it in black and white as a rule or guideline, what might it be?  For example, perhaps you stopped eating sugar?  Or limited yourself to one dessert per calendar week?
  • List out the specific conditions under which you're frightened you may overeat after the pandemic ends.  This usually comes down to restaurants, work meetings, travel, family events, Holiday gatherings, birthdays, and other special celebrations.
  • Go through these conditions one by one and write down exactly how you plan to handle them. 
    • Holiday gatherings: For example, if you're frightened of a holiday gathering, perhaps you might say you'll allow yourself one serving of any desert you choose on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's.  Or, if you want to stay off sugar entirely, make a specific plan for what to bring to the party that will get you through.  Perhaps a plate of grapes or a sugar-free cheese cake?  Many people also find these gatherings are more manageable when they create their own dessert and leave it in a piece of Tupperware sitting and waiting for them at home.  They take comfort in knowing they'll have it to enjoy after the party and it keeps their dessert monster at bay throughout the event.
    • Restaurants: Here are four great tips for avoiding overeating at a restaurant.  (1) Look at the menu online beforehand to consider what you might order.  Don't just look at the dishes, look at the items that comprise the dishes, and ask yourself if combining them would make a better meal.  For example, I don't eat meat, but sometimes find myself in steakhouses for business meetings.  It's no problem, though, because they usually have caesar salad (romaine lettuce), portabello mushrooms for their steaks, lots of vegetables for soup and side dishes, and so on.  So I just call the restaurant ahead of time and ask if they'll be able to prepare me something special.  Sometimes I do it right there on the spot.  I'm never shy about this because it's a great way for the owner to bond me to their establishment as a regular customer. I find about 90% of owners and chefs are happy to comply.  (2) Track your meals before you eat them —enter your plans in MyFitnessPal or Cronometer.com.  (3) If the aromas at a restaurant are too tempting, try putting a little Vick's VapoRub on your upper lip before you enter.  (4) Just like you can make specific exceptions for holidays, you can make them for restaurants too.  For example "I only eat sugar twice per calendar month at a restaurant, never more than one serving in dessert, and always at least two weeks apart."
    • Travel, birthdays, special events: This works similarly to holidays and restaurants.  The principle is to delineate your difficult decisions beforehand so you can eliminate the need for willpower from the mix.  If you understand willpower as the ability to make good decisions, and you know that most of these situations are set up with social forces designed to seduce you into bad decisions, then eliminating tough decisions entirely in the tempting environment is the most natural fix.
  • Holiday gatherings: For example, if you're frightened of a holiday gathering, perhaps you might say you'll allow yourself one serving of any desert you choose on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's.  Or, if you want to stay off sugar entirely, make a specific plan for what to bring to the party that will get you through.  Perhaps a plate of grapes or a sugar-free cheese cake?  Many people also find these gatherings are more manageable when they create their own dessert and leave it in a piece of Tupperware sitting and waiting for them at home.  They take comfort in knowing they'll have it to enjoy after the party and it keeps their dessert monster at bay throughout the event.
  • Restaurants: Here are four great tips for avoiding overeating at a restaurant.  (1) Look at the menu online beforehand to consider what you might order.  Don't just look at the dishes, look at the items that comprise the dishes, and ask yourself if combining them would make a better meal.  For example, I don't eat meat, but sometimes find myself in steakhouses for business meetings.  It's no problem, though, because they usually have caesar salad (romaine lettuce), portabello mushrooms for their steaks, lots of vegetables for soup and side dishes, and so on.  So I just call the restaurant ahead of time and ask if they'll be able to prepare me something special.  Sometimes I do it right there on the spot.  I'm never shy about this because it's a great way for the owner to bond me to their establishment as a regular customer. I find about 90% of owners and chefs are happy to comply.  (2) Track your meals before you eat them —enter your plans in MyFitnessPal or Cronometer.com.  (3) If the aromas at a restaurant are too tempting, try putting a little Vick's VapoRub on your upper lip before you enter.  (4) Just like you can make specific exceptions for holidays, you can make them for restaurants too.  For example "I only eat sugar twice per calendar month at a restaurant, never more than one serving in dessert, and always at least two weeks apart."
  • Travel, birthdays, special events: This works similarly to holidays and restaurants.  The principle is to delineate your difficult decisions beforehand so you can eliminate the need for willpower from the mix.  If you understand willpower as the ability to make good decisions, and you know that most of these situations are set up with social forces designed to seduce you into bad decisions, then eliminating tough decisions entirely in the tempting environment is the most natural fix.

Last, please note you can use these principles to better your eating regardless of when we fully emerge from quarantine restrictions.  The pandemic was a serious ordeal for most of us, but it doesn't have to have a serious impact on your weight, health, and sense of well-being.  You can take control once again.

For more specific tips and techniques on how to stop overeating, binge eating, or just plain eating beyond your own best judgment, please see "How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps."