As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, especially as the number of cases continues to rise, it may be taking an increasing toll on your mental health. You may be feeling anxious, stressed, sad, angry or bored. And when those emotions hit, it may be tempting to turn to food for comfort, including overeating or overindulging in sugary, fatty or salty foods.
But emotional eating can negatively affect your health — both physically and mentally. It can lead to weight gain, or worsen preexisting conditions like diabetes, especially if you aren’t able to do as much physical activity as usual. Those things, in turn, can cause or exacerbate depression or anxiety. So it’s essential to continue paying attention to what, when, how and why you’re eating.
Rush clinical psychologists Joyce A. Corsica, PhD, and Mackenzie Kelly, PhD, offer 8 tips to help you maintain healthy eating habits as the pandemic continues.
1. Structure your day.
One of the main reasons people overeat at home is the lack of structure in the day, and social distancing can easily throw off your day-to-day routine.
Having a set schedule and sticking to it will help you avoid aimlessly wandering into the kitchen for an unneeded snack or meal.
“Include chunks of time for work, relaxation/exercise, eating and communication with others,” Corsica suggests. “If you have an outline planned, you are less likely to feel like the day is a big empty space that can make you feel rudderless and may lead to overeating.
2. Plan meals ahead of time.
Both Kelly and Corsica say meal planning is a great way to curb unwanted snacking.
“Plan out your meals and snacks at the beginning of the day,” Kelly said. “If you wait until you’re hungry to decide what you’re going to eat, you may end up eating more or choosing something higher in calories than if you had thought about your meal and snacks in advance.”
You can even add snacks to your daily plan. Knowing that you have a healthy snack in the lineup can stop you from eating too much between meals.
3. Shop healthy.
While it may be convenient to buy processed foods, these types of foods tend to be less healthy and make it easier for you to overeat.
It’s important to buy fresh produce, starches and proteins as much as possible. When you prepare food from scratch, you can better control the fat, sugar and sodium.
If fresh items aren’t available, opt for frozen foods that don’t have added sugar or salt; when choosing canned goods, look for items that are lower in sugar and sodium.
And while it’s certainly OK to enjoy an occasional treat, try to avoid pre-packaged treats as well — especially those that come in oversized packages. For instance, if you want ice cream once a week, buy individually wrapped mini treats instead of a pint, quart or gallon.
4. Don’t be idle.
When you are bored, the easiest thing to do is fill that time with food. The best way to stay away from boredom-related cravings: Keep yourself busy.
“If you feel stuck, bored, lost or frustrated, try to understand and label the feeling and then decide what you can do about it,” Corsica suggests. “That might be finding a smaller task to work on, changing tasks entirely, taking a break, or checking in with a colleague or loved one.”
To keep yourself busy when you aren’t working or studying, try switching things up. Don’t just binge-watch Netflix for 12 hours straight; watch a show for a little while, then work on a puzzle or read a book, or try some brain games to keep your mind sharp.
5. Carve out eating spaces.
“Designate one place in your home as the place where you will eat, and try to keep your work and relaxation spaces in your home separate from where you eat,” Kelly suggests.
Ideally, limit eating to the kitchen or dining room area. This can prove difficult for people who are now working from home and may be using their kitchen or dining room table as a desk. In those cases, consider at least moving to another chair when it’s time to eat to differentiate your “work” and “meal” spaces.
Corsica also recommends not eating and working at the same time. And if you are watching TV or reading on the couch and get hungry, get up and go to the kitchen or dining room to eat, then return to the couch when you are done.
Try to keep your work and relaxation spaces in your home separate from where you eat.
6. Take breaks from the 24-hour news cycle.
Having the news on frequently or checking your phone all the time for updates or social media posts may be contributing to your stress — and making you turn to food for comfort.
Make the conscious decision to take breaks from the 24-hour news cycle. Change the channel to a non-news station or turn off the TV altogether. And schedule chunks of times where you put your phone away. You can always check in later to learn of any updates or contact loved ones.
7. Find other ways to manage your emotions.
If you are feeling stressed or anxious, look for ways to cope that don’t involve food.
Listen to music, clean out a closet or drawer, stream a free virtual exercise class, take a bath or try other healthy strategies you have used to help reduce stress in the past.
8. Stay connected to other people.
This last tip is imperative for combating stress eating and protecting your mental health overall: Make sure to stay connected!
“It can be easy to isolate yourself from others when social distancing,” Corsica says. “But while you may not be able to go see your friends and family in person, use the technology available to keep in touch with your loved ones. Host a virtual Netflix watch party, Facetime, create a group chat, and don’t be afraid to simply pick up the phone and call.”
Remember: while we all need food to fuel our bodies, and tasty food can bring a lot of pleasure, it’s important not to bury your feelings in unhealthy foods or neglect your normal eating patterns. Making smart food choices and eating only when you are actually hungry will help ensure that you won’t gain a lot of weight or worsen chronic health issues as shelter in place and social distancing continue.