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Anxiety, boredom and stress, triggered by lack of social outings, and being confined to homes have resulted in people resorting to binging on comfort foods as a coping mechanism. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Stress-eating or overeating is increasingly raising concerns as one of the collateral damages of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many worrying that their food choices are unhealthy, affecting well-being and self-esteem, fear psychologists.

Anxiety, boredom and stress, triggered by lack of social outings, and being confined to homes have resulted in people resorting to binging on comfort foods as a coping mechanism.

Feeding the ‘pleasure centres of our brains’

Nadia Brooker, a specialist eating disorder psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, told Gulf News that of late, she had been treating several patients complaining of stress-eating. Brooker explained: “During stressful times, our bodies often crave high calorie, high sugar foods, as these provide energy bursts and activate the pleasure centres of our brains that help regulate difficult emotions. Because stress elevates cortisol levels, it can also increase our appetites.”

Brooker added that the restriction of socialising and fear of COVID-19 had triggered in many elevated amounts of anxiety, loneliness, anger or even boredom, making some people more vulnerable to binge-eating. She sounded a word of caution to all such people. “Using food as an emotional ‘crutch’ can quickly become the norm and may eventually lead to disordered eating patterns.”

As the pandemic continues globally and many people continue to work from home, work longer hours than normal, or have job insecurities, there is a daily temptation to overeat or drink because of the constant availability of food, absence of structure and financial fears. A recent survey commissioned by the British Nutrition Foundation covering more than 2,000 respondents looked at how COVID-19 has affected diet and fitness levels. The results have revealed that nearly 48 per cent of the respondents admitted that they did not feel motivated enough to eat well and 27 per admitted that their eating habits were less healthy. About 63 per cent attributed boredom as the reason for taking to unhealthy food.

Eating without a hunger cue

Brooker explained that ‘stress-eating’ or ‘emotional eating’ were not clinical terms, but a way to describe eating in response to trying to regulate or suppress negative emotions rather than attending to hunger cues. “Many of us may be guilty of participating in this behaviour to varying degrees at the moment and while, in the short term, this may be regarded as a form of ‘self-soothing’ and a means to help ‘solve’ the problem. However, in the long term, this is not a viable coping mechanism. Instead, it creates a vicious cycle of difficult and distressing feelings, followed by guilt and low self-worth. Physically, those affected may also notice weight gain, a decrease in energy and trouble sleeping,” elaborated Brooker.

How cravings begin and then veer out of control

Some types we term ‘comfort food’ such as crisps, chocolates, ice-creams, cakes are those we want to have when we are feeling low or stressed. “Typically, people crave ‘feel-good’ food sugary and carb-rich items as these stimulate dopamine and serotonin production, the latter of which is sometimes referred to as the ‘happy chemical’ due to its impact on mood. As such, eating these types of foods can be seen as a means to change the way we feel, albeit temporarily, before feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, depression and generally poorer health and well-being may take hold,” Brooker explained.

With good awareness, education and training we can conquer these vulnerabilities. All we need to do is confront our emotions, be conscious of our decisions and make thoughtful food choices. We are in this pandemic for the long haul and once we accept the ‘new normal’ structure, a work- out routine and healthy food choice around it, we can salvage our health. It is very important to remain as mindful as possible at this time and develop alternative coping skills in order to help protect our physical and emotional well-being for as long as the uncertainty continues,” said Brooker.

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Binge Eating Image Credit: Seyyed Llata

Nutritional crisis

Dietician Alexia Dempsey at the Priory Well Being Centre offers practical tips on how to handle the nutritional crisis.

Meal planning, drawing up shopping lists can help you avoid making food choices based on emotion. Draw up a clear meal plan, that includes three main meals (that incorporates carbohydrates, protein, vegetables, dairy and fats) and 2-3 snacks a day. Plan for occasional treats too to cut out the risk of binge eating. Include consumption of up to two litres of water daily. Dehydration can cause tiredness, sluggishness, poor concentration, irritability — and hunger. It is easy for us to mistake dehydration for hunger. Ensure you are drinking enough fluid during the day.

Make sure you include all the ‘food groups’ in your meals, because they all have a role in your health (such as fruit, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy.) If you can fit some fish in, a couple of times a week, as your protein, you might also be boosting your mood. Studies have shown that countries that have higher intake of fish have lower incidences of poor mental health. While this is not conclusive, fish has also been shown to support other health outcomes, so it is well worth adding to the menu.

Even during lockdown, we need to exercise. Exercise does not necessarily have to be a run. Walking and getting some fresh air means you are getting a change of the environment around you and this can help boost the mood and overall health.

Include plenty of variety in your meals; it is easy to get bored with food when you eat the same thing so have a Google and experiment. Eating and watching TV/using laptops and phones while you eat means that you are not engaging with your food and are likely to miss initial biological cues that you are satisfied with how much you have eaten.

If you feel like ‘binging’ or are worried that you are about to engage in a binge, try to change your environment. Whether you usually eat or snack in your kitchen, bedroom or sitting room, aim to get up and move to a different area or head out to the garden for a while if you are lucky enough to have outdoor space. Sometimes we need to distract ourselves from a feeling of wanting to binge have a bath, paint your nails, read a book or go for a run. Staying social — even from a distance — is important during these times and a great diversion from food, or comfort eating. Call or message a friend for a chat if you feel tempted to snack.

Overeating or emotional eating can be a passing phase, or it can become a highly distressing behaviour. If you are feeling worried about your eating, seek support from a doctor or a registered specialist professional. Communication is the key, whether it’s with a treatment team or supportive loved ones and friends. Be aware of your feelings and do not bottle them up — take time every day to reflect on how you are coping. So, simply STOP: Stop, take a step back, observe and proceed mindfully. Ensure you get plenty of sleep and keep a structure to your day — and your meal times.

Do not beat yourself up. If you feel like you engaged in disordered eating, notice what caused this — use this information in a helpful way and plan how to move forward by identifying these challenges and naming helpful, skilful alternatives. Do not forget to notice the positives: It can be helpful to end your day by noticing one thing you enjoyed, one thing you are grateful for and one thing that you achieved.

Recognise the problem

Mitun De Sarkar

Mitun De Sarkar, clinical dietician and managing director of Simply Healthy, says: “When you are stressed and tensed or bored it’s common for people to emotionally binge eat. This behaviour gets aggravated as stress produces the cortisol hormone that makes us hungry and likely to overeat. But the mind is not craving for fresh fruits and vegetables, the brain’s signals for comfort from high fat, high sugar and high salt food in response to the cortisol.

“The solution is recognising this as a problem and doing something about it to help yourself.”

Sarkar suggests that one should stick to a routine and maintain a consistent meal time even if one is hungry. Following are some suggestions:

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Overeating or emotional eating can be a passing phase, or it can become a highly distressing behaviour. Image Credit: Shutterstock

When bored hunger cues are dangerous, it’s best to go by the clock

Daily eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time.

If you need snacks then time the snacks too.

Focus on lots of good quality proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.

Stocking up on lean chicken, fish, meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, fresh fruits, vegetables, brown rice, oats helps as these foods will keep you full and satiated and not crash your insulin making you hungrier or craving sugar within minutes of eating

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Drink plenty of water in between meals

Drink herbal teas in between meals

Plan to cook your proper meals and enjoy the process. Cooking healthy and creating delicious nourishing dishes can be therapeutic for many. Just baking cakes or making dalgona coffee is not the only way to beat the stress in the kitchen.

Exercise and social interaction can help bring down cortisol, makes you feel happier and calm

Getting out of the house for some fresh air and some brisk walk quietens your mind and helps focus on the right.

Plan all your groceries and shop for fresh produce. It’s ok to buy even frozen fruits and vegetables as long as you don’t stock up on unhealthy.

Control your mind . You have no control over what’s going on outside but you have full control over yourself and your family’s wellbeing.