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Eating your feelings? Here's how to break the stress and comfort eating cycle

Pandemic eating problems like comfort eating and cooking fatigue can affect our mental and physical health. A dietitian helps us handle them.

Now that we’re more than a year into the pandemic, certain eating challenges have emerged from the disruption of our daily routines, limited opportunities to dine out and the anxieties that come along with job and financial insecurities.

Here are some common pandemic eating problems and how to handle them.

You’re grazing all day or snacking through lunch

A handful of nuts here, a few chips there, a taste of chocolate, a bite of leftovers — if this scenario rings a bell, you might have fallen into an all-day grazing habit. The truth is, our bodies weren’t designed for around-the-clock eating, and this pattern can cause digestive woes (such as constipation), undermine your energy levels and promote weight gain. Plus, if you consistently graze and then skip lunch, you might never feel sufficiently full, so you put up with consistent hunger that you can’t quite tame.

The best ways to counter an all-day eating habit are to develop a meal schedule and learn to identify your hunger and fullness signals.

  • Start by having breakfast within a couple of hours of waking up. Not hungry? That may be a sign you overate last night or ate too close to bedtime. Try to finish your last meal or snack about two hours before you go to bed.
  • Follow with a balanced lunch in three to five hours. A balanced meal has lots of veggies and smaller amounts of protein and healthy carbs.
  • Have an afternoon snack. If dinner is more than four or five hours after lunch, a snack that combines produce (a fruit or veggie) with some protein or fat (such as nut butter, hummus or a boiled egg) will tide you over and provide valuable nutrients.
  • Enjoy a satisfying dinner. Ideally this meal includes the same mix and ratio of food groups as lunch.

As you work on your meal timing, pay attention to when you feel hunger creeping in and at what point during your meal you begin to feel comfortably full. Make adjustments to your meal timing, so you start eating as you get hungry and finish when you begin to feel full.

You’re stressed out — and taking comfort in food

It’s natural to associate food with comfort and to eat in response to stress. While this undoubtedly provides some momentary pleasure and relief, if you’re eating too many less healthful foods over more wholesome ones, you may miss out on nutrients and ultimately feel crummier. At the same time, when you soothe these emotions by turning to food, you aren’t learning alternative coping strategies that are more helpful to reduce stress and anxiety in the long run. Here’s how to break the stress and comfort eating cycle.

  • Learn what physical hunger feels like. For instance, you might experience a grumbling stomach or a headache coming on. Try to eat as you feel signs of hunger instead of as a response to your feelings.
  • Eat balanced meals at consistent times. This helps you manage physical hunger, which makes it easier to address your emotions without food.
  • Become a mindful eater. Always sit down when you eat and use a plate (or a substitute, like a paper towel) for meals and snacks. Linger over your food, taking the time to notice the taste, texture, temperature and appearance.
  • Be loving to yourself. Beating yourself up over your eating habits only adds to your stress. Be kind to yourself — you’re doing the best you can. It’s okay if things don’t go smoothly all the time. You’re a work in progress, and conquering stress eating takes practice.
  • Practice self care. When you regularly engage in self-care activities, you develop other tools to cope with stress. Self care isn’t just about taking a bath or painting your nails. For example, if you focus on getting seven to nine of sleep, you may feel less frazzled, helping you make more deliberate food choices.

You’re over the whole cooking every meal situation

Since the pandemic has dragged on longer than expected, it’s unsurprising that we’re getting tired of cooking. In fact, a survey conducted on behalf of the meal kit company Sun Basket found that 69 percent of respondents wished they could whip up a healthy dinner more quickly. Here are some tactics that help you simplify your meal prep.

  • Eat meals on repeat. If you limit the variety of meals you plan to make, you also cut down your shopping list, making your grocery haul easier. Narrow down your weekly options to one or two breakfasts and two or three lunches and dinners. Next week, choose different meals to add variety to your menu.
  • Learn how to repurpose foundational ingredients. Foundational ingredients are basic components that you cook once and then layer in different seasonings to make meals less monotonous throughout the week. For example, a rotisserie chicken (whether store-bought or made at home) can become a barbecue meal one night and a taco dish the next. A big batch of whole-grain pasta can be tossed with veggies and canned tuna for a Mediterranean-style pasta salad one day and then with pesto alongside salmon or chicken the next.
  • Use shortcut ingredients. Frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen or ready-to-heat brown rice and quinoa, salad greens, pulses, eggs and canned tuna are some easy options that can drastically reduce your prep time. It’s okay if your whole foods come from a box, bag or can.
  • Don’t forget the condiments. Healthier condiments, like store-bought pesto and low- or no-sugar marinara sauce, low-sugar barbecue sauce, salsa and hummus, can instantly upgrade bland ingredients. Use them whenever you need fast flavor.

You treat yourself with food

Rewarding yourself with food is an old habit that’s easy to fall back on when life gets you down. Remember when you used to get a lollipop after a trip to the doctor or a special meal after a big game? These types of treats teach us from a young age that food can reward us for our pain or hard work, so we have to undo that thinking to break this habit.

  • Stop labeling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Using labels like these can make you more preoccupied with less healthy foods or make you feel terrible after eating them. Remember that you can enjoy all foods on a balanced diet, and there are healthy aspects to enjoying less nutritious fare. For instance, it qualifies as self care if you order pizza to take a night off of cooking to fit in an online workout or just some quiet time.
  • Eat less healthy foods when you want them. When you reserve them for treats, it sets up the idea that less nutritious foods need to be earned. They don’t. If you eat them mindfully when the mood strikes, they’ll be less alluring with time.
  • Develop a list of non-food rewards. If you’re in the habit of rewarding yourself with food, think of other ways to treat yourself that are realistic right now. The most helpful replacements will feel special, but they don’t need to cost money to do so.