Michelle Litwer, Psy.D. | Staff Psychologist:

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been struggling with healthy eating habits during the quarantine. It has been challenging to maintain a consistent routine with eating while I’m stuck at home. Resisting urges to grab more handfuls of cookies, pretzels, popcorn, and scoops of ice cream is way more difficult when I am three feet from the kitchen!

If this is something you are connecting to, you are not alone! Increased feelings of boredom, lack of routine and structure, more accessibility to the kitchen, increased anxiety and uncertainty about the future, feelings of sadness and disconnection, and feeling out of control can all be contributing to emotional eating. All the negative news about COVID-19 can also be contributing to needing some extra comfort from food.

Don’t get me wrong, eating a nice treat (i.e., a Hershey kiss, a yummy chocolate chip cookie) is actually very helpful and considered a self-soothe skill. Enjoying and savoring a treat is something I look forward to between my sessions with clients or while I am working on a big project. This helps get me through tough and distressing moments and allows me to mindfully enjoy something tasty. However, I must be careful not to over-do it (this is the tricky part).

Balanced, healthy eating is such an important part of our ability to regulate emotions during tough times. It is important to not under- or over-eat, which can make us more vulnerable to feeling unwanted emotions that keep us stuck or get in our way. This is especially important given the current circumstances, where you may be relying on food to provide short-term relief from distress, which could end up hurting you more in the long run. Emotional eating often doesn’t solve the problem you are facing and can be used as an unhelpful distraction. Maintaining healthy eating habits and balance, instead, will help you face the problem with more regulated emotions.

Here are some tips on how to engage in healthy eating habits during the quarantine: 

1. Be mindful of events that prompt you to engage in emotional eating. Here are some examples that can be relevant during the quarantine:

Conflict with family members. (especially if you moved back home and are adjusting to a new environment).

Boredom. Maybe you have nothing to do and find yourself grabbing food because it’s the easiest option.

Feeling disconnected and lonely. It’s possible you aren’t connecting with loved ones to provide you comfort and support during this time.

Consuming excessive social media.You may find yourself watching/reading the news excessively and feeling increased anxiety, uncertainty, and feelings of hopelessness.

Increased stress due to working from home or being furloughed/losing your job. It’s possible you are working more during the quarantine (due to the lack of structure/ difficulty ending the work day at a reasonable hour) or you are currently not working and adjusting to an emptier schedule.

2. Focus on mindful eating! Here are some helpful reminders:
Eat without distractions, if possible. It’s common to be doing two things at once such as eating and doing laundry (trying to be as productive as possible). Focus on just eating, experiencing the taste, assessing your hunger level, checking in on fullness and satisfaction levels. We’ve all had times where we finished a meal so quickly we barely payed attention to what was eaten. Notice how eating becomes a more pleasant experience when done mindfully.

3. Develop a consistent eating schedule. Here are some things to consider:

Plan your meals. I recommend scheduling them in your calendar as if it were an appointment. This reminds me to eat a meal and to avoid mindlessly snacking all day.

Try to structure your meals following this format: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, evening meal, and an evening snack.
*Pro tip: make sure you are not going more than 4 HOURS without eating. This is a helpful guideline to avoid engaging in a cycle of overeating/binge eating.

Make sure to plan meals that are satisfying physically and emotionally. You may notice that eating certain foods make you feel more irritable, tired, or overly emotional (for me these are products with excessive sugar in them).

4. Stay connected to others.

Reach out to your support systems if you are feeling lonely and disconnected. It is important to stay in touch with loved ones during this time. Find what works for you whether it is a FaceTime/video chat over dinner with a friend, Netflix watch parties, virtual board games with friends, a virtual workout class, or just having a nice heart to heart (be mindful to avoid talking about COVID-19 the entire time).

5. Stick to routine.

Most people benefit greatly from routine and structure. This may be hard to maintain considering the circumstances. It is important to schedule activities in your day that help increase positive emotions (e.g., listening to music), build mastery (e.g., learning a dance routine in a workout class), increase productivity (e.g., cleaning your closet). Find activities that bring you joy or help you develop a skill. See if you can find an online equivalent to an activity you were engaging in before COVID-19. Click here for a full list of various remote resources and at-home activities for some ideas.

Notice when you are turning to food because you are experiencing boredom and difficulty problem solving. I will often brainstorm three solutions of what I can do when feeling this way. It looks something like this:

  1. I can go on a walk right now while listening to rock music. Oh wait, it’s raining, that won’t work.
  2. I can continue cleaning out my closet, switching my winter clothes to summer clothes. Actually, I don’t really think that’s going to do the trick right now. What else can I do?
  3. I have been meaning to finish that puzzle since the weekend. Let me try that out for 30 minutes!

6. Limit your social media and news feed.

Be mindful of how often you are checking the news and certain media outlets. Stick to checking the news twice a day and unfollow accounts that provoke intense anxiety. I found it helpful to sign out of accounts such as Facebook and Twitter, so I am less tempted to check them frequently.

7. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and accept that times are tough right now.

We are all facing big losses. Give yourself the time and space to grieve the experiences you can no longer engage in right now (i.e., going out to dinner with friends, attending your favorite workout class).

8. Focus on self-compassion

If you find yourself turning to food for comfort and eat something you didn’t plan to, it is best to accept this reality and move forward. It is perfectly okay to feel overwhelmed right now and have fewer coping skills and resources to fall back on. My favorite motto: if you fall off the horse, get back on. Don’t beat yourself up, and make sure to get back on track with your next scheduled meal. Be mindful of calling yourself a failure, giving up, and going back to old eating patterns!

Good luck on your healthy eating journey!

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