How to Combat Stress Eating During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Postponed vacations. Restaurants and bars closed. Work from home policies in effect. Because of the novel Coronavirus, Covid-19, the rest of March is canceled, and many of us are feeling some level of anxiety about what the next few months will look like. In stressful times like these, it can be easy to pick up unhealthy habits, particularly when it comes to eating. Studies have shown that stress (and with it fear, depression and anger) can lead us to seek comfort from eating foods that are high in sugar and/or fat. However, these “comfort foods,” as irresistible and delicious as they are, tend to be rich in calories, but poor in essential nutrients.

Since the present situation demands that we keep ourselves as healthy as possible, loading up on comfort foods is extremely counterproductive. So how can we continue to fuel ourselves healthfully when boredom, anxiety and stress are likely to bombard us for the next several months? Here are some tips to avoid falling into unhealthy eating habits:

1. Keep a limited supply of processed snacks in the house

It may seem like a no-brainer, but you can’t eat what you don’t have. Before you make your next grocery trip, take inventory of your current snack foods. Read the nutrition labels – do they contain quality ingredients and essential vitamins and minerals? Or are they loaded with salt, sugar and fat? Try to refrain from purchasing large amounts of the highly processed chips, crackers and sweets. The more you have at home, the more you will be tempted to graze.

2. When you do snack – portion control is key

Eating straight from a large bag or container of food is an easy way to eat more than the suggested serving size, which can mean hundreds of extra calories consumed. When you have the urge to snack, make it a point to portion out the food into a smaller bowl. It’s fine to go for seconds, but ask yourself first – “am I really hungry for more?” 

3. Eat without distractions

Mindfulness is always important when it comes to eating. Try to free yourself from distractions, including the television, social media and work emails and focus on the meal in front of you. If you live with a partner and/or kids, encourage them to do the same. When we eat free of distractions, we become more aware of feelings of satiety, which can help prevent overeating. Plus, paying attention to your meal gives you the opportunity to really enjoy the flavor and taste of the food – and isn’t that the whole point?

4. Observe consistent meal times 

If Covid-19 is keeping you at home during the workday, you likely have more freedom to eat when you want. My advice is to keep your eating patterns the same as if you were going into the office everyday. This not only leaves less room for mindless snacking, but it helps you keep some semblance of a routine, which may be comforting during this uncertain time.

5. When in doubt – opt for protein + fiber

To be clear, having snacks is a healthy habit. Snacks are important mini-meals that are useful for keeping our blood sugar levels steady throughout the day and between our bigger meals. The question then becomes: what should I snack on? The answer: foods with protein and fiber. These nutrient-dense foods fill you up more quickly and are more satiating than anything that’s heavily processed. Think of some of the classic snack combos: apple slices and peanut butter, baby carrots and hummus, whole grain cereal with milk. These are terrific options that contain both fiber (from the apples, carrots and cereal) and protein (from peanut butter, hummus and milk). And when you do feel a craving for something a little more processed, try to select options with at least 3 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein per serving.

6. Get creative with exercise

Many of us use physical activity as a way to de-stress, but now with gyms closed, finding a space for formal exercise is difficult in a way it never was before. Try to get moving anyway you can. Use the Internet to help you – YouTube, for example, has tons of free yoga and other workout videos that you can follow along with at home. If it’s available to you, take a walk or go for a run outside. Any kind of movement that makes you feel good is better than nothing.

This is, without a doubt, an unprecedented and anxiety-inducing time. Aside from taking the necessary precautions (hand-washing, social distancing, etc), following a nutritious diet is the best way to keep ourselves healthy. Let’s not let boredom, paranoia and stress control our lives and lead us down an unhealthy path.

Top photo: Bigstock

About Jean Hanks (8 Articles)
Jean Hanks is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, passionate runner and lover of all things food. Jean grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where a mandatory health class sparked her interest in nutrition. She went on to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in sociology (with a minor in dance) from Tulane University in New Orleans, and then a Masters of Science in nutrition from Hunter College in New York City. While attending grad school, Jean wrote for the Jewish Daily Forward as the Food Intern, commenting on food news, reviewing cookbooks, and posting original recipes to the publication’s website. Jean is now the lead dietitian at Bethany Medical Clinic of NY, where she provides nutrition counseling to busy New Yorkers. She has run eight half marathons and made her marathon debut in Philadelphia in November 2018. You can often find Jean in the kitchen, cooking, with a glass of red wine. Feel free to contact Jean with any nutrition-related questions at jhanks3181@gmail.com.