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Are You Gonna Eat That?

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Diet is right up there with religion and politics as a topic that will often create acrimony or even outright hostility among folks who don’t see eye to eye, so if you find anything hard to swallow in what follows, take it with a grain of salt.

Eating habits during a pandemic

Sheltering in place, being an essential worker who is out there taking big risks every day, trying to work from home while watching the kids, or whatever the new routine may be in the time of coronavirus, it is likely to have affected your emotional well-being in a variety of ways. The stress and anxiety levels of everyone affected by the pandemic are registering in many as altered eating habits.

Many report weight gain caused by emotional over-eating. Others are so fraught with worry that food has become unappealing.

Many report weight gain caused by emotional over-eating. Others are so fraught with worry that food has become largely unappealing. Still others cycle through periods of over-eating when mildly anxious to refusing food when truly freaked out.

Complicating matters is the fact that many remedies for emotional eating or lack of appetite include things we are restricted from fully enjoying these days. A big workout at the gym, a pleasant visit with friends or family, a road trip to your favorite eatery are all off limits during these difficult times.

Counties and states that are reopening quickly are seeing surges in Covid-19 new case rates. As we continue to adjust and settle into the new normal, which now looks as though it will be with us for a long while, the last thing we may want to see is yet another strategy for how to cope.

And that’s OK, because experts in the field are saying don’t worry about your eating habits right now because adding yet another layer of stress onto this situation might have even more adverse effects on your health. It could lead to the common yoyo diet experience of binging followed by deprivation.

A vicious cycle can emerge in which the commonly felt sense of emptiness cannot be filled with food, and then the shame of overindulgence creates still another unfillable hole. And so on.

How to cope

A few little tricks like keeping foods that are particularly dangerous temptations for you out of the house can be helpful, but make sure you don’t follow a period of such deprivation by ordering a whole pallet of that food for your next curbside delivery.

It’s also wise to take a moment when pondering a snack and notice if what motivates you is real hunger or just that gnawing sense of emotional emptiness from missing your friends, your routine, your normal. If it seems like the latter, consider cultivating another habit that may be soothing: call someone, write in a journal, go outside, create some art, work in the garden. If you still want food after that, go ahead and eat something and don’t sweat it.

Take a moment when pondering a snack and notice if what motivates you is real hunger or emotional emptiness.

If you are more in the category of being turned off by food during these times it is likely that your anxiety levels are high and that sleep is elusive and exercise unappealing as well. Ironically, a good diet, adequate rest, and daily movement are the best remedies for many types of anxiety.

Try to maximize the nutritive value of the foods you do eat as empty calories will not fuel your body and will lead to other problems. Choose foods that you know are easy on your digestive system. Limit caffeine. Try some deep breathing or guided imagery or simple meditation practices; there are dozens of online resources for these things.

Move your body, take a warm bath, call a friend. If severe lack of appetite continues for two weeks and you are losing weight, it may be time to schedule a telehealth appointment with a provider who can refer you for therapy or advise you on medications that may be appropriate. There is nothing abnormal about what you are feeling right now, and there is no shame in needing help to get through it.

Mindful eating

A practice known as mindful eating can have benefits to those anywhere on the emotional eating or lack of appetite continuum. In modern times of relative food abundance we sometimes take food for granted and barely think about what we’re doing when we eat, taking meals at the computer or in the car, or snacking mindlessly while binge-watching The Great British Baking Show.

Mindful eating can have benefits to those anywhere on the emotional eating or lack of appetite continuum.

Mindful eating involves giving yourself reasonable portions of nutritious food, chewing sufficiently slowly so that your body knows when it is getting full, and doing nothing else while you eat. Establishing these habits can make the act of consuming food a more enjoyable experience and thus more fulfilling on an emotional level.

Mindful eating can also get a boost from something we’re likely all doing more of these days: cooking at home. Preparing a meal from start to finish can lend a more intentional approach to consuming it, encouraging you to slow down and savor. The smells of food prep help us experience foods more completely and appreciatively and we are less likely to rush through meals thoughtlessly.

Above all, remember that none of the emotional upheaval you may be feeling right now is abnormal. There is no textbook on how to cruise through and maintain cool in a pandemic. Fear, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness are cycling though our hearts and souls leaving residues that trigger behaviors we can’t wish away. Food soothed our ancestors in times of scarcity, it is soothing to us now in these times of uncertainty.

We are all in this together, so when your friend calls to tell you she just cleaned out her refrigerator, and you know she doesn’t mean with cleaning products, tell her you love her and offer to drop off a new sack of groceries.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.