Q&A: Why People Are ‘Stress Eating’ During the Pandemic, and How to Stop

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Anxiety provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic is causing people to adopt a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms – including “stress eating,” when people eat in response to feelings or emotions.

Melanie Brede is a registered dietician in the University of Virginia’s Department of Student Health. She’s been treating a lot of patients who have been stress eating since the country began quarantining in March, and spoke with UVA Today about the phenomenon, why it happens and what people can do to get healthier.

Q. Why has stress eating become prevalent during the coronavirus pandemic?

A. I think commonly, people are feeling stressed and anxious about a lot of unknowns.

Also, the nature of isolation is changing people’s eating patterns, and that can be related to both getting food and trips to the grocery store. Those patterns have changed. What’s in stock and on hand? Finances are [changing] for a lot of people. And then just uncertainties about health, be it food safety or other things like immunity or bigger-picture elements, both personal and community-oriented.

During phase one, a lot of people were really trying to avoid trips out at all, and so people were maybe shopping less frequently or, depending on the household, maybe different people were doing the shopping. Some of that, I think, has evolved a little bit with a little bit more reopening as we’re now in phase two [in Virginia]. I have not read or looked for anything in particular that compared consumer patterns in that regard. But I think that in the bigger picture, it’s a combination of changes in frequency of shopping. Also a lot of online ordering.

My own personal anecdotal observation is what seems to be available in stores has changed somewhat. I went to the grocery store last night and I was like, “Oh, rice is back. Hooray!”

Q. People are doing a lot of cooking, getting carry-out, and there is even this new trend of baking, which has led to a run on flour. What’s your take on the variety of ways people are getting their food?

A. That’s an observation, too. I hadn’t thought of that one – what we’re purchasing as far as groceries, but also what are we getting just in general, and where are we getting our food. Is it frozen, ready-to-eat stuff? Is it homemade from scratch stuff? Is it takeout or carry-out?

I think that varies a lot in different contexts. But certainly, my world is with students, who are often starting from a place of relative inexperience with food prep. I’ve seen some who are figuring it out more because they’re sort of forced into it, like, “Wow, OK. So, I’m learning how to cook,” and others who are completely overwhelmed by that because it hasn’t been their experience.

To some degree, for college students, particularly undergrads, how recent was the experience of living at home and eating with a family versus that independence of being on their own potentially for the first time or a relatively recently? All that stuff is impacted by all of this. It is really interesting to see how things play out.

Q. People talk a lot about how they are getting their days confused and how being in quarantine has muddied their daily patterns, including when and what they eat. As a registered dietician, what are your observations about that?

A. I talk with students a lot about anchor points. Students famously have quite variable schedules compared to 9-to-5 types. And so we often are talking about, “How do you have some structure in your day?” I think that all of this quarantine has really disrupted that for people, because there is no inherent “I have to leave the house at this time to get to this place.” You know, for students who are doing classes that are maybe recorded and they can watch them whenever, there’s less of a “Well, my class is at 11, so I have to be up by this time.”

I think generationally people are experiencing that similarly … we don’t have our normal commute or packing a lunch or things that basically gave us some structure – whether it was something we were really conscious of or not – that’s really been disrupted by everything just happening within our same four walls. What’s there and what’s accessible and what’s visible.

Q. Can you elaborate on how what is visible impacts the way people eat, as well as the pitfalls of dieting?

A. Traci Mann, from the University of Minnesota, is a professor of psychology who researches human eating behavior. This is a quote from her book “Secrets from the Eating Lab”:

“When you are dieting and hungry, your brain responds differently to tasty-looking food than it does when you are not dieting. The areas of the brain that become unusually active make you more likely to notice food, prompt you to pay more attention to it when you find it, and make it look even more delicious and tempting than usual.”

Mann’s student, Janet Tomiyama, focused her dissertation on exploring stress and dieting.

“What Janet found,” Mann writes in her book, “is that the act of restricting calories led to a physiological stress response. … Stress cannot be avoided when you are dieting, because dieting itself causes stress.”

Q. People have 24/7 access to their kitchens now. I actually work in my kitchen. How does space impact eating habits?

A. Sometimes, we can influence things by how we set up our space. So, in the office setting, the example is like, “OK, move the candy dish.” People often talk about this in restaurants that bring you the basket of chips or the bread or whatever at the beginning of the meal and, when it’s just there, you know, we eat it. If they’d never brought it, we might never have asked for it.

So working at home, I’ve got a little designated section of counter that’s in my kitchen. Working in your kitchen is a very different experience than going through a whole building, where there’s not a refrigerator two steps away.

Q. Can you talk about the unhealthy impact of stress eating?

A. In general, when people talk about stress eating, it’s an uncomfortable emotion, as a stress emotion that that feels problematic and that we’re eating to soothe. One of the things that’s an interesting perspective that can actually go a long way in addressing it is to recognize that when we’re eating for comfort, we’re trying to do something to take care of ourselves, and when we feel the stress, we want to be comforted. Acknowledging that can be really powerful because it identifies that there is some distress.

So we started this conversation talking about how in this pandemic, people are feeling really the distress. That opens up the awareness to say, ‘Well if I’m not liking the way my eating is going, what else could be comforting? Is what I need right now to connect to somebody else?”

Q. What can people do to stop stress eating?

A. I think one of the really interesting and positive pieces of this whole experience is that people are often reaching out to people they might not have regularly made a phone call to because we’re all feeling disconnected and seeking that connection. And so maybe people are talking to a friend they hadn’t talked to in a while with a more intentional step of reaching out, and that that’s really a good thing. So whereas the stress eating may be coming from a place of discomfort, recognizing that that’s what it’s about opened up the possibility of, “OK, what are some things I can do to comfort myself when eating is not serving me well? What’s another option?”

If we were to broaden this topic to “emotional eating,” we can say, “Happiness is an emotion. Fear is an emotion.” We eat in celebration. That’s a maybe a happiness-driven emotion. So, the point being [that] making that connection between emotion and eating patterns can be really helpful to see. Is food going fill that need? Or is something else a better fit?

So, when people are feeling isolated and lonely, it may be that a phone call or reaching out to a friend is a better fix, because that’s going to help give connection. Food is soothing in the moment, but it’s not going to actually help you feel heard.

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Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications