How to Avoid Emotional Eating Due to Coronavirus Stress

Cynthia Sass, registered dietitian, shares her five-step strategy for avoiding emotional eating, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Needless to say, this is an unprecedented time. Even if you’ve never dealt with emotional eating, Covid-19 pandemic-induced stress, school closings, layoffs, and stay at home orders may trigger you to turn to food to cope. The inclination to eat emotionally is normal. We’re practically taught from birth to use food to address our feelings. We bond over treats, plan celebratory dinners, and bring meals to neighbors in times of need. Also, avoid eating these foods, according to nutritionists.

But ongoing emotional eating is different. An unchecked pattern of eating your feelings during times of stress, like Covid-19, can wreak havoc with your mental and physical energy, disrupt healthy sleep, weaken immunity, and up health risks. The good news is you can systematically untangle food and emotions. Here’s a five-step strategy I use with my clients to foster a more balanced eating pattern, even under stressful circumstances.

Tune into your body’s cues

The first step is to tune into your body to differentiate between body hunger and mental hunger. Physical hunger has physical symptoms, like a growling tummy. If you feel hungry, but you’ve recently eaten or have no physical signs of hunger, check in with your feelings. In a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers say there are four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. My advice is to pinpoint the primary emotion you’re experiencing so that you can address it in ways that don’t involve food. For example, if you’re angry, doing something physical may help, like cleaning, organizing, or engaging in an at-home workout. If you’re sad, a better match may be to call a friend, spend quality time with a pet, or watch a melancholy movie and release some tears.

Connect the dots between feelings and food

The second step is to further explore the ‘whys’ behind your eating choices, and the four-emotion concept can help. For example, do you find yourself eating crunchy or chewy foods when angry, and creamy, comfort foods when sad? If you’re not sure, start a food-and-feelings journal. In addition to tracking what you eat, record your hunger and fullness levels, and your emotions. The idea isn’t to police yourself, but rather learn about your relationship with food. Once you’re aware of your ‘whys’ (as in, I’m reaching for ice cream not because I’m hungry, but because I’m sad), you can consciously test out alternative coping tools. Opt for these food combinations that boost your health.

creating and planning a scheduleCraft24/Getty ImagesCreate an eating schedule

Step three is all about structuring your time. For most of my clients, the risk of eating emotionally is greater on the weekends, when they have more free hours. No doubt your usual routine has been derailed by the coronavirus. Try to set up some structure as best you can. Eat meals around the same time each day, spaced about three to five hours apart. In addition to preventing mindless munching, settling into a consistent eating routine will help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as hunger hormones.

Eat without distractions

The fourth step is to commit to mindful eating when you do sit down to a meal—don’t multi-task. Sit at a table instead of in front of your TV or computer, and eat without checking your phone, reading, or other distracting activities. While it may feel awkward at first, my clients who do this even once a day find that they’re better able to tune into hunger and fullness cues, and feel more satiated after eating.

Be kind to yourself

The fifth and final step is to be kind to yourself and employ positive, gentle self-talk. Bullying yourself about emotional eating only heightens emotions, which can increase the drive to eat. If you wind up polishing off a bag of cookies while watching the news, reflect on the ‘why’ rather than beating yourself up. If you could go back and redo the day, what would you do differently? Change isn’t linear, and that’s OK. Sometimes a step back can be a learning opportunity that alters how you handle a similar situation the following day or down the road. It’s this step-by-step process that leads to sustainable change, and the adoption of alternative ways to cope.

Finally, it is OK to enjoy special treats. It’s not realistic or even necessary to banish certain foods from your home⁠—it’s all about how you eat them. Build your favorite goodies into a meal, and indulge mindfully, rather than spontaneously. The goal isn’t to restrict yourself, it’s to create balance, which feels much better than deprivation or overindulging. Now more than ever, balance is key. Next, here are 50 unhealthy snacks you need to stop eating.

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Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
Cynthia Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, writer, recipe developer, and practitioner, with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. One of the first registered dietitians to become a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, she has consulted for five professional sports teams in the NBA, NHL, and MLB. In her private practice Sass counsels a wide range of clients. She has worked with Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy winners, professional athletes across a variety of sports, Fortune 500 CEOs, executives, entrepreneurs, and many other high-performance people. She is also the nutrition consultant for UCLA's Executive Health Program. Sass has appeared on numerous national TV shows, including The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Rachael Ray Show, The Martha Stewart Show, The Dr. Oz. Show, The Biggest Loser, Nightline, and many others. In addition to her degrees, Sass has formal training in plant-based, organic culinary arts and mindfulness meditation. She is also a Certified LEAP Therapist and is working toward certification through the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy. She specializes in high performance nutrition and plant-based eating, and is based in Los Angeles.