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Stress eating? You're not alone – and experts say it's OK

What is it about stress that makes people turn to chocolate, pizza, chips and other indulgent foods?
/ Source: TODAY

The memes about overeating during the coronavirus pandemic have been flooding social media. People joke about gaining the “quarantine 19” or the “COVID-19.” Others compare themselves to Hobbits always wanting second breakfasts. It’s clear many people are using food to soothe their feelings.

“We often associate food with comfort. We literally have that name, these are comfort foods,” Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, told TODAY. “Short-term stress will decrease appetite. But if it’s long-term stress or if we don’t know when it ends, it increases appetite.”

When people experience a lot of uncertainty or ongoing strain, their bodies produce a steroid hormone, cortisol, which boosts feelings of hunger.

“We secrete cortisol, which increases wanting to eat,” Kearney-Cooke explained.

That's why people reach for mac and cheese or pizza while under pressure and Kearney-Cooke said enjoying some indulgent food during the pandemic shouldn't cause people to panic.

“It’s OK to let yourself receive comfort from food,” she said.

She cautions people against restricting themselves too much right now. People can’t enjoy so many of the things they once loved: There’s no sports, attending movies or concerts or even going out to dinner. But people can still make and eat special meals.

“Food is pleasurable. But if some people are not feeling as much pleasure, they can't go out Saturday night to watch the new movie, (they’re missing it),” Kearney-Cooke said. “We need pleasure in our life.”

Nutritionist Leslie Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh, said she’s been telling her clients not to fret too much about gaining weight.

“It’s really scary and if people are at home and looking to comfort themselves in whatever they can,” she told TODAY. “People want to have the foods that make them feel secure.”

Now is not the time to stress about gaining a pound or two.

“Some people may be gaining weight because they’re eating a little bit more, exercising a little bit less. And you know what, I’m not overly worried about that with my patients right now,” Bonci said. "There are bigger fish to fry."

So much of daily life has transformed that it’s important that people focus on their immediate worries and not beat themselves up over having dessert more often or adding more carbs or fat in meals.

“Every aspect of our lives — not just eating and exercising — changed. Most people never worked from home or didn't have to home school their children. They’re not sleeping well because they’re looking at the news,” she said. “The idea of putting more stress on one’s self or more guilt on themselves right not is not a positive behavior.”

Kearney-Cooke agrees. Though, she does warn people to think about their comfort food consumption.

“It becomes a problem if you are eating excessive amounts of food and especially if you're doing them to fix your moods and emotions,” Kearney-Cooke said. If that's you, here is some helpful advice.

Bonci encourages people to truly savor their food. Now that people have loads of time, they can make complicated recipes and experiment with dishes they’d normally be too busy to make. But, she urges people to relish their food and not mindlessly eat it, making meals into events. That way people can have rich foods and feel better, without overeating too much or using it as a crutch.

“Sit and enjoy it. In our real life we might not be able to do that,” she said. “Take the time to savor the food.”