Middle-age creep isn’t the jerk in a trench coat leaning over your shoulder with a camera phone. It’s the added spare tire, usually caused by stress, that refuses to budge no matter how much we diet or exercise. Stress has a powerful effect on appetite. But does eating reduce stress? Fat chance. What you eat during self-quarantine and sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic can help you cope better or make your stress worse. Some are calling the 15-pound weight gain during self-isolation “quarantine 15.”
Research shows that stress alters overall food intake, resulting in either under- or overeating, which may be influenced by stressor severity. Chronic life stress seems to be associated with a greater preference for energy- and nutrient-dense foods, namely those that are high in sugar and fat. A Yale University study conducted by Dr. Dror Halwena found that under threat, even insects like grasshoppers—which normally feed on protein such as grasses—switch to gorging on sugary goldenrod plants. The sugary foods provide fuel to quickly feed their amped-up bodies in cases of fight or flight. These insects, like humans, often feed stress instead of managing it.
The Stress-Eating Cycle
Wonder, then, why we crave pizza, potato chips, and chocolate during the coronavirus quarantine? When we’re worried or frightened, we’re more likely to seek out sugars, fats, and carbs for a quick energy boost. These comfort foods act like a natural tranquilizer that calms us down in times of peril.
But what feels like a satisfying solution in the short term grows into a bigger problem in the long run. Comfort eating traps us in a hard-to-break eating cycle that adds to stress levels, resulting in serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, as well as emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety.
During stress, the brain acts as an internal slingshot, pumping a cocktail of stress hormones into our bloodstream. We stew in its cortisol and adrenaline juices. And glucose—natural body sugars that are released from the liver and muscles—spikes to give us energy, readying us for action.
Research shows that glucose must be replenished after a stressor has passed. So the more glucose we release in reaction to stress, the hungrier we’ll be after the stressor. That jacks up our craving for sweets and fat to replace the much-needed cortisol. A large amount of cortisol makes us crave foods high in fat, sugar, and salt—a craving that results in stress eating. And boom! The fats and sugars we eat go straight to our bellies, storing fat, causing further damage to the body, and throwing us into a chicken-and-egg cycle.
Breaking the Cycle
When our nutrition is in the gutter, chronically elevated levels of cortisol keep our internal alarm systems on around the clock. Our bodies were not designed for chronic stress nor to use food for comfort. To break the stress cycle, we can find stress-reducing activities, such as exercise, meditation, and yoga. Coupling the activity with healthy, nutritional eating and a good night’s sleep gives us healthier ways of managing unpredictable times, like the pandemic.
Here are six additional steps you can take to avoid the quarantine 15:
1. Eat nutritious foods. A well-nourished body has a stronger stress-resistant shield. Certain foods fortify you while others deplete your body’s resistance. Replacing Red Bulls, Diet Cokes, and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with bottled water, protein smoothies, and fruit juices is less likely to tax your nervous system. Slowly digested high-fiber foods like whole grains and pasta stabilize blood sugar levels. Studies show that foods containing omega-3 fatty acids protect against heart disease and relieve mild depression. Seafood, nuts, seeds, and oils such as canola, flax, and soybean provide these nutrients.
2. Portion meals. When you're at home, it's easy to drink from cartons, eat out of containers, or snack from bags. But if you don’t measure food, you automatically eat more, which contributes to unwanted weight gain and obesity. Instead of eating from cartons, containers, or bags, portion out snacks and meals on a plate or bowl. Studies show that using smaller plates leads to less eating.
3. Practice mindful eating. Steer clear of gobble, gulp, and go—eating while standing, driving, on the run, or watching TV. Treat mealtime as a singular activity with value in its own right. Sitting down, eating slowly, and chewing a few times before swallowing, appreciating textures, aromas, and food flavors help you relax and enjoy the meal as well as aid in digestion. It also gives your stomach time to tell your brain when it’s full, and you will be less likely to overeat.
4. Inventory your kitchen. Scientists say that surrounding yourself with healthy foods makes it more likely that you will eat better. When you’re stressed, your appetite has a mind of its own and focuses on what’s in front of you.
Consider purging your fridge and cabinets of unhealthy choices that tempt you. If you don’t have high-fat sugars like ice cream in the freezer or salty chips in the cupboard, you’re more likely to reach for healthier fare. Stock your kitchen with healthy munchies and nutritional foods. Clean out your kitchen cabinets and fridge and get rid of the junk food.
5. Change your routine. Remove yourself from settings you associate with comfort binge eating. After a stressful day, instead of plopping in front of the TV with a case of beer or carton of ice cream, plan something different. Get in the habit of rewarding yourself with a healthier activity. Walk the dog, play computer games with the kids, Facebook a friend, listen to relaxing music, soak in a hot bath, or meditate.
6. Exercise self-care. In addition to good nutrition, the trifecta of health is ample rest and regular exercise. Chances are the places where you’ve been working out are closed during the quarantine. Find other ways to exercise and stay fit while sequestered at home, such as jogs, walks, pushups, or lifting weights.
My personal trainer suggested I walk up and down my long driveway for 20 minutes each day. When I reach the bottom of the driveway, I do six squats, and when I reach the top of the driveway, I do six pushups. And don’t forget the importance of ample sleep. Make eight hours of sleep a top priority.
The Holy Grail of physical and mental health also includes how you talk to yourself inside. In the face of uncertain times, instead of kicking yourself when you’re already feeling down, be on your own side with pep talks, optimism, and self-compassion. A positive attitude is crucial during this extended time. Hope exists alongside despair, and it's just as accessible.
Daubenmier, J et al. (2011). Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: An exploratory randomized controlled study. Journal of Obesity, 2011: 1-13.
Hawlena, D et al. (2012). Fear of predation slows plant-litter decomposition. Science, 336: 1434-1438.
Torres, SJ, & Nowson, CA. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition, 23: 887-894