Mindful Eating During Stressful Times

Eating behavior is just one aspect of our lives that has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The psychological stress, alterations in our daily routines, fluctuations in food availability, and even boredom that many people are experiencing right now are all linked in the scientific literature to detrimental changes in eating behaviors, including poor food choices and increased emotional eating. In this short blog post, I will discuss the impact these factors have on our food choices and how mindful eating strategies can help mitigate some of their adverse effects.

Psychological Stress Impacts Our Food Choices

Psychological stress has been found repeatedly in scientific research to trigger poor dietary choices, including increased consumption of high-carbohydrate, high-fat processed foods (referred to as “hyperpalatable” foods in scientific studies). The adverse effects of psychological stress on dietary choices appear to be mediated by changes in the HPA axis, the human body’s primary stress response system, as well as alterations in glucose metabolism and appetite-related hormones. (1)

At the neuronal level in the brain, stress impacts the mesolimbic dopaminergic system, a neuronal signaling system involved in reward sensitivity and food preference. Altered signaling within this system may initially increase the “reward” value of hyperpalatable foods, which are the positive feelings (such as a momentary reduction in anxiety) that you get from eating these foods. However, the blood sugar roller coaster and inflammation that result from the consumption of hyperpalatable foods will only worsen your health in the long run.

Research indicates that psychological stress may make you less able to resist the siren song of fast food.

Research indicates that psychological stress may make you less able to resist the siren song of fast food.

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“Uncontrollable stress changes eating patterns and the salience and consumption of hyperpalatable foods; over time, this could lead to changes in allostatic load and trigger neurobiological adaptations that promote increasingly compulsive behavior.” ”

— Yau YHC and Potenza MN, Minerva Endocrinol, 2013; 38(3): 255-267

Changes in Routine Alter Eating Behaviors

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have recently experienced a drastic shift in our daily routines; we are working from home, often in close proximity to our family members, and may have different work schedules and meal times as a result. Research indicates that even these simple shifts in routine can alter eating behaviors, causing us to eat either more or less than usual and possibly also the types of foods we choose to eat. (2)

Boredom: A Potent Trigger for Mindless Eating

Many people are out of work right now, and nearly all of us are sorely missing our normal social lives and extracurricular activities. The resulting boredom may also adversely impact our eating behaviors, as we tend to use food to fill up “empty space” in our days. (3)

Mindfulness Supports Healthy Eating Behaviors

While we are currently up against a multitude of factors that conspire to change our eating behaviors, the incorporation of mindful eating practices into our daily lives can go a long ways in supporting healthy eating. Listed here are my favorite mindfulness practices for cultivating and maintaining healthy eating behaviors.

  • Stop unhealthy eating in its tracks by slowing down. When you are stressed out and feel cravings for unhealthy food coming on, slow down and ask yourself “Why am I reaching for these foods?” Are you truly hungry, or are you feeling tired, lonely, or anxious? If you are not hungry, can you find a non-food activity that comforts your mind and body, such as playing with your dog or going on a walk outside? If you are actually hungry, can you pivot and reach for something nutrient-dense and supportive for your immune system instead?

  • If you find yourself having trouble slowing down when stress-induced food cravings strike, you may benefit from beginning a daily mindfulness practice. This is a powerful strategy for “rewiring” the brain as a whole, and in the long-term, may promote healthier eating behaviors. I recommend that you begin with ten minutes per day of meditation, using an app such as Headspace or Buddhify.

  • Create a list of non-food activities that feel nourishing to you, such as reading a good book with tea in hand, or spending time in nature. Post this list in a place in your home where you’ll see it daily; it will serve as a powerful visual cue that you DO have a choice to either indulge or maintain healthy eating behaviors when you are stressed out.

  • Establish set meal times. If you are the type of person who typically eats three square meals a day, stick with that while quarantined at home. If you usually intermittent fasting, eating only two larger meals a day, maintain that habit. Maintaining set meals times will help both those who tend to eat more when stressed and those who forget to eat when stressed.

  • Eat with your family (or whoever you are with at home) rather than alone. If you live alone, consider arranging a virtual mealtime with family or friends over Skype or Zoom.

  • Sit down in a chair at a table to eat, rather than on your couch in front of the TV or in front of your computer. This will help to prevent mindless eating and the excessive calorie consumption that comes with eating food in front of digital screens.

  • Chew your food thoroughly. This helps slow down the eating process, aids satiety, and jump-starts digestion.

  • Manage your environment. If you currently have a lot of junk food sitting around at home, it may be time to toss it out, or at the very least, hide it in a part of your house where it is out of sight. By eliminating its presence in your day-to-day life, your cravings for the unhealthy foods may subside.

  • Finally, I highly recommend wearing blue light-blocking glasses at night for 1 to 2 hours before bed. This will optimize your production of melatonin, which may have protective effects against SARS-CoV-2. Preclinical research also suggests that nighttime exposure to blue light may promote unhealthy late-night eating; wearing blue-light-blocking glasses at night may, therefore, reduce your desire for junk food late at night. I routinely recommend these glasses to my clients who struggle with nighttime snacking behavior. (4)

Are you currently struggling with eating and food due to COVID-19? What strategies are you using to maintain healthy eating habits? Let me know in the comments below!

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