As part of social distancing efforts, many Americans are stuck at home, where they're tempted to snack on junk food all day long. Here's what experts say you can do to avoid the temptation to "stress eat."
Why we eat when we're stressed
Jennifer Wegmann, a lecturer in health and wellness studies at Binghamton University, said, "With most people, the first thing to go when we're stressed is self-care." By self-care, Wegmann says she means things like exercise, sleep, and eating well. "We let go of those things first because we think we need to be better for other people," she said.
According to Mackenzie Kelly, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center, there's another reason why we may be inclined to ditch our healthy eating habits during particularly stressful times: Stress can cause us to crave foods high in fat or carbohydrates. As Kelly explained, stress causes the release of cortisol, a hormone, and increased insulin production, "which impacts the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, and when that's activated, it can impact food selection."
Meanwhile, some people respond to stress by not eating, according to Debra Kissen, CEO of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. That reaction goes back to prehistoric times.
"When you're about to be eaten by a lion, and you either need to fight or take flight, it's not really efficient for your gut to be digesting food. It's a waste of energy," Kissen said. The reaction is "a prehistoric way of surviving that for a modern life crisis can be ineffective."
How to stop stress eating
Wegmann said the first thing to do to address stress eating is acknowledge that stress and anxiety are causing your feelings. "Once we can acknowledge that we're afraid," we can figure out what behaviors stress is causing, Wegmann said.
One way to keep yourself from stress eating is giving yourself time between meals, Kelly said. "If people are feeling stressed or anxious, just allowing some time to pass can help," she said.
Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center, recommends making "mealtimes very clear, so everybody knows there is a time to eat and time to not eat." For example, you could decide that food can only be eaten at the kitchen table or over a placemat. "Create a change of scenery, so you realize it's a different moment," Politi said.
Keeping healthy foods on hand can also help, according to Politi. While people might be afraid to buy fruits and vegetables given their shelf life, Politi said some produce items "are much less perishable" than others. Some examples of longer-lasting items, according to Politi, are bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, apples, and citrus fruit.
If you need a snack, Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, recommends nuts or chopped vegetables rather than things like pretzels, as nuts and vegetables have a higher nutrient density and are more filling. "Most pretzels, all you're getting is white flour and sodium—not a great combo," she said, adding that you could even eat popcorn instead. "At least with popcorn, you're getting a grain."
And for those not eating enough, Kelly recommends eating something rich in calories when you do eat, like a protein shake. "It would be one thing if this was a day or two, but we're in this for a while," she said.
But in either case, it is OK to have a treat, and in fact, indulging a little can be important, according to Politi. She recommends giving yourself one treat a day and deciding in advance what it'll be and when you'll eat it. "[A]sk yourself, at what time of day do I feel most vulnerable, when I would really enjoy eating this?" she said (Miller, New York Times, 3/25; Potkewitz, Wall Street Journal, 3/23).