Here’s why your eating habits may take a turn for the worse when you’re feeling anxious—and what to do about it.
With the continual uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to get overwhelmed any time you read the latest news update. And while we know that the right nutrition strategies complement our hard work on the roads and trails, current feelings of stress and fear can lead you back to your snack drawer over and over again.
You may notice subtle to substantial differences in your otherwise healthy diet, since eating can be a welcome distraction or coping mechanism when you’re going through a difficult time. But that’s okay, because it is completely normal.
“You have to recognize that you’re feeling stressed, and recognise that you’re turning to food. I don’t think a lot of people realise that in the moment,” she says.
Being open and honest with yourself about what is driving your eating is a simple way to give these emotional experiences less power. Embracing this as an opportunity to learn about yourself, and your relationship with food will guide you down the right track to better eating habits during tough times.
Your relationship with food should be a balance, and sometimes it can take more of a mental effort to readjust your eating habits. Really understanding yourself and your eating habits goes hand-in-hand with changing your diet.
“Being able to recognize what that craving is connected to and asking yourself is it physical hunger or emotional hunger is key,” says sports psychologist Justin Ross, Psy.D., founder of MindBodyHealth in Denver.
Most importantly, this is a time to be gentle with yourself. “A big part of that is giving yourself permission to understand that these are really stressful times,” Ross says. “You can always work to make [better] decisions that match up with your desired way of living.”
If you notice yourself heading to the kitchen more often than you used to, Ross and Rizzo shared four strategies that can help guide you back on track.
1. Find a different way to occupy yourself.
If you know you’re just spooning ice cream out of the carton due to stress—and not because you’re actually hungry—Rizzo suggests finding another activity to busy yourself.
“Running, taking a bath, doing your nails, doing yoga—it’s almost like a distraction tactic. Some people just do better having a plan,” she says.
Ross agrees: Turning to food doesn’t alway have to be your go-to in order to deal with challenging realities.
“Deep breathing, meditation, getting outside and getting movement, and connecting with your community, friends, and loved ones are great ways to combat stress,” Ross says.
2. Consider everything in moderation.
There is a time and a place for all different kinds of food. Being overly restrictive about what you eat doesn’t work well in the long run for most people. It can contribute to a variety of health problems including a weakened immune system and increased fatigue.
On the other hand, overeating can be problematic as well because it can lead to unwanted weight gain, increased risk of cancer, and digestive problems. Plus, consistently high blood pressure and cholesterol levels can up your risk of health complications, such as stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
That’s why finding a balance is key.
“Everyone should eat the foods that they like, in moderation,” Rizzo says. If your normal lunch is fast food and dinner is followed by a pint of ice cream every night for more than a month, that could be detrimental—not only to your weight, but also to healthy blood pressure and good cholesterol levels, she says.