Why Stressing About Food and Weight Gain Can Backfire

Sarah Schlichter, RD
by Sarah Schlichter, RD
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Why Stressing About Food and Weight Gain Can Backfire

According to reports from the Mayo Clinic, around 15% of the 1,000 people surveyed gained 1–3 pounds during quarantine. The average person, however, only gained 0.21 pounds. “Weight gain in quarantine [i.e., the quarantine 15] has been largely blown out of proportion,” says Jessica Jaeger, RD. “We are in stressful times. Obsessing about food and weight exacerbates this stress and can potentially cause more harm than the weight itself,” she adds.

WHY FOOD HABITS MIGHT FLUCTUATE

It’s logical our food choices and eating habits are variable during a pandemic, given the emotional turmoil many people have experienced, and the lack of availability of some fresh foods and staples. Some people may be cooking at home more, while others have turned to more convenient but processed foods.

However, if you are someone who has gained weight during this stressful time, take comfort in knowing you don’t need to be obsessing about changes on the scale right now. Our body weight fluctuates naturally during various phases of life, and it’s more helpful to have compassion with yourself when you’re dealing with something as unprecedented as a global pandemic.

CAN FOOD HELP WITH STRESS?

Comfort foods when eaten in moderation can make you feel better in the moment, whether they are associated with a nostalgic memory of previous happier times, or through the temporary release of feel-good hormones. Food can provide temporary comfort, stress-relief and a sense of normalcy when things feel out of control. Denying yourself comfort foods likely leads to further cravings and more stress. However, emotional eating can also be associated with eating in the absence of physical hunger as a way to ameliorate negative self-focused emotions.

“We know certain foods, typically those higher in carbohydrates and fat, can provide us with feelings of calm,” adds Kelly Abramson, RD. Indulging in comfort foods from time to time “will not negatively impact our health,” she adds. “However, adding to our stress levels by worrying about pandemic weight gain can have negative mental and physical health effects. Instead, I prefer people start trusting their bodies to tell them what they need in the moment,” a process known as intuitive eating.

As Abramson notes, excess stress can be harmful to the body. Prolonged stress can lead to a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone associated with adverse health outcomes, such as increased inflammation, hypertension, blood glucose and even fatigue.

COPING MECHANISMS BEYOND FOOD

While food can be a normal response to stress, if food is the only emotional outlet we have for coping, it can lead to a tarnished relationship. If we find ourselves always eating in the absence of hunger, eating beyond a comfortable fullness level and eating when bored, our body may become confused and we probably won’t feel great, physically.

It’s important to have other non-food-related coping mechanisms for stress in your toolbox. Consider exercise you enjoy whether it’s yoga, going for a walk or strength training or mindfulness practices such as deep breathing and meditation. Listening to music, a podcast or journaling can also help a racing mind.

If you feel like you are constantly stress eating as your only mechanism for coping with uncertainty, you can also seek a registered dietitian or therapist. Many accept virtual clients and can help develop a personalized plan for your needs and goals.

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About the Author

Sarah Schlichter, RD
Sarah Schlichter, RD

Sarah is a registered dietitian based in the Washington, DC area. She works with athletes on fueling for their sports without strict dieting. Sarah is also a nutrition consultant and writes the blog, Bucket List Tummysharing nutrition posts, healthy family-friendly recipes and running tips.

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