food tray

Homebound And Faced With Food

Learn how to Avoid Stress Eating During the COVID-19 Response

Another month of staying at home is triggering a mix of emotions, including wondering when we might return to “normal” and what that normal might look like. While working through those emotions, we are also constantly faced with a refrigerator and cupboard full of food. It is a challenging combination, causing many people to “stress eat.”

So how can you avoid using unhealthy eating habits to cope? Ashley Krautkramer, ThedaCare’s Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, describes high-risk individuals and provides a few simple strategies for staying healthy.

At-risk Populations

Those most at risk for stress eating are people who have coped with stress in the past by overeating or choosing to consume unhealthier comfort food.

“Most people will continue to deal with stress in the same way as they did prior to the pandemic,” Krautkramer explains. “Others who might be susceptible to unhealthy eating habits in these uncertain times are those with compromised immune systems, conditions such as cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), children and teenagers, caregivers to the elderly or people potentially infected by COVID-19, and those with existing mental illness.”

The pandemic is also adding new stressors that can generate unhealthy eating habits, such as a loss of or reduction in hours at work, being home with family more, change in routine, and being unable to engage in prior activities that brought joy and relieved stress.

Stress-eating Solutions

What is a person to do if their propensity under stress is to grab for a family-size bag of chips or consume a gallon of ice cream? Krautkramer suggests these strategies to avoid the binge eating and overindulging that could lower your immune system and add to unnecessary weight gain:

  1. Plan in advance. Since it is recommended to limit trips to the grocery store and avoid lingering in the store, now is an important time to develop a habit of planning meals for the next two weeks and create a shopping list that has you sticking to healthy food choices. Appropriate planning will ensure you have enough healthy foods at home. “If you don’t put it on your list, you are less likely to buy it. Then you won’t be tempted with it when stress causes you to want to overindulge,” said Krautkramer.
  2. Keep it simple. Not every meal has to be gourmet. “Try to think of all of the different food groups – grains, protein, dairy, vegetables, fruits – when planning healthy meals,” she said. “Then, include at least three different food groups at each meal and two different food groups at each snack time.”
  3. Set a rhythm. Plan to have at least three meals per day and two snacks, if snacks were part of your day prior to the pandemic. Try to stick to the same time for each of those meals. When children are in the house, it is recommended to plan for three snacks per day, in addition to the three meals.
  4. Add structure. Eat your meals with purpose by eating at the table and removing distractions such as the TV or electronic devices. “Regular family meals are imperative to reducing stress eating, especially for children,” Krautkramer noted. “It builds social skills as the family connects and bonds over conversation, and children who regularly participate in family mealtime are more likely feel better about themselves and embrace eating a wider variety of foods. Family meal time also is an opportunity for parents to model good eating habits for their kids, sitting down at the table to eat without distraction and listening to internal cues of hunger and fullness to determine when they’ve had enough to eat.”

“Be gentle to yourself,” Krautkramer encouraged. “This stay-at-home situation is unique, and something most of us have not experienced before. It is okay that you’re not eating the same as you used to. Once we transition back to the ‘new normal’ and a less stressful way of living, healthier eating habits will likely follow.”