How to Practice Mindful Eating During COVID-19

How to avoid the “Freshman 15!”

Watch gaining the “Grad School 20!”

Don’t get a “Dad bod!”

Steer clear of that “Menopausal muffin top!”

And of course, now there’s, “Gonna gain ‘The COVID 19’” after eating my whole kitchen.

What do all of these phrases have in common? Fear-mongering and fat-phobic messages about weight gain during transitions consistently rise to prominence. Prospective students often dread gaining weight in anticipation of going away to school. Future parents often fear their bodies changing after the birth of their children.

Laughter can be a great coping tool during difficult times, but it’s worth remembering that memes and jokes about weight gain really point to our enduring communal fear of gaining weight, even in extraordinary situations like the one we’re in now. But is it really about the actual weight gain? Studies have exposed a disconnect between weight loss and health outcomes

So, what are we fearful of?

It’s one thing to transition from your parents’ house to a college dorm, and it’s another to experience a world-wide pandemic. Right now, we’re collectively experiencing a massive, wide-spread transition. People are staying home, practicing social distancing in an attempt to flatten the curve and lessen the spread of COVID-19, an experience the world hasn’t seen in over 100 years. This is not just staying at home. This is a noticeable change, and dealing with change can often be difficult. During seasons of change, it’s understandable that we want our bodies to stay the same.

Maybe you’ve noticed yourself feeling increased loneliness or boredom. That convenient deli across the street from your office is less accessible than it used to be. Trips to the grocery store are infrequent and stress-laden. What’s more, you’re experiencing reduced structure to your day, and your routine feels muddled. When your anxiety is heightened, it’s reasonable that you might cope with those changes by turning to food.

This isn’t just a creative self-soothing mechanism you developed for yourself, it’s biologically understandable.

When we’re stressed, our cortisol levels may fluctuate and deplete our energy levels, and we may crave foods higher in fat and sugar. Eating foods we like activates reward pathways in our brain, releasing dopamine and endogenous opioid peptides within the central nervous system, which relieves emotional and physical consequences of stress really quickly.

However, as you may have observed, the relief is short-term. So, while this coping response may have served you at one point, perhaps it’s no longer meeting your needs. After binging, you may wonder when you can eat again, and feel scared about when you can trust yourself around your kitchen cabinets, or even at the grocery store. We’ve seen the infamous toilet paper shortage around the world.

Fearing food scarcity, whether externally or self-imposed is a key component of overeating. “If I don’t eat this whole box of Oreos now, I’m never going to find them again.” What do you do if you had these thoughts months ago and now people panic-buying at grocery stores creates real scarcity?

So, this isn’t about just increasing self-discipline or joining an extra IGTV exercise class. According to a study reported by the National Association of Eating Disorders (NEDA), Binge Eating Disorder is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. So, if you’re struggling with fears around food right now, know that it’s not just in your head. You aren’t a bad person or weak for having a hard time right now. These are unusual times, and you’re not alone.

Here are 5 things to try if you’re struggling with emotional eating right now:

1.     Take a step back.

What’s really going on? Are you aware that you want to binge before it happens? Take a moment to pause when you notice those feelings. Try practicing a deep breathing technique called 4-7-8 breathing. Think of this as an experiment. You can tell yourself that you can always binge after trying this, and you’re not necessarily trying to stop it, but why not try something different just to see how it feels?

Ask yourself, “Am I feeling physically hungry?” If you are, go with that. Eat something mindfully, paying attention to what sort of food you’re craving.

2.     Turn to trusted coping skills.

If you aren’t noticing any physiological hunger signals, think about what might feel soothing that doesn’t involve food. Maybe that’s watching puppy videos, listening to a favorite song, smelling a comforting candle, or drawing a picture of your cat. You can also develop some affirming coping statements, like, “Binge eating will make me feel great for the next few minutes, but I’m going to feel worse afterward.” or, “I can choose to be kind and compassionate to myself right now.”

3.     Reach out to loved ones (virtually!).

Binge eating thrives in seclusion, so remember to stay connected to community. A wonderful feature of living in the 21st century is the technology we have created that allows us to maintain those connections despite social distancing. We’re still social beings who need connection. If you notice yourself withdrawing or need a healthy distraction, try sharing a meal with a friend via FaceTime. 

4.     Validate yourself.

It’s okay to feel fearful. Is it comfortable? Possibly not, and you can still entertain that stress and emotional discomfort. Acknowledge the pain and frustration or any other emotions you might notice coming up for you. You can ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself through this moment?” And remember to especially extend compassion to yourself if you experience regret around rough moments. You are not the exception to the rule—this is tough stuff. You are doing your best with the current circumstances.

Furthermore, you may not have access to the foods you commonly turned to before the pandemic. You can validate frustrations you may be experiencing. Eating canned green beans, potato chips, and microwave meals instead of a salad from Sweetgreen may not be ideal. Recognize that. It’s okay to feel frustrated. And, when you can’t choose your food selection, what can you choose? Where can you find other healthy areas of control right now?

5.     Call for help.

If you’re struggling right now and need support, you don’t have to be alone just because we’re social distancing. There are a number of online resources available to you. ANAD and NEDA offer online hotlines, as well as a crisis text line you can access by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

If you would like more long-term individual support, feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our trusted therapists.

We’re here for you through this time and are offering online therapy seven days a week.

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