Emotional Eating and the Coronavirus

“Since we’ve been in quarantine,” announces Susan, a binge eating client, “I can’t stop overeating. Now that I’m in lockdown, I wish I had lockjaw!”

Danny laughingly echoes the same feeling: “Now that I can’t go to work, I’m involved instead in many diverse activities at home throughout the day — there’s snacking, grazing, munching, nibbling, noshing, chowing down, and sometimes even eating meals!”

Susan and Danny have it right — emotional eating struggles during this time of COVID-19 are alive and well.

In truth, worry, anxiety, fear, grief, boredom, anger and depression are always major triggers for emotional eaters. But when you add a pandemic to these triggers, you have a perfect storm for people struggling with food, eating, and worries about weight gain. And even those “normal” people who don’t have an eating disorder are struggling as well.

Of course, the fear of getting COVID-19 and the worry about loved ones getting sick is paramount in people’s minds. But clients have also expressed that not knowing when the quarantine is going to end is one of the worst parts of this experience. Here are what some clients have discussed:

  • Judy: “If I knew when my life would be back to normal, then I could tolerate the next month with more peace of mind. My anxiety would be more manageable and probably my food, too. I’d know this lockdown would have a beginning, middle, and an end, rather than this intolerable ongoing experience.”
  • Leslie: “For me the biggest stress is not knowing how to explain to my kids why they can’t see their friends, why we can’t go out to play, and trying to fill up the day with kid-focused activities. It’s driving me crazy — overeating is like my sanctuary, my oasis.”
  • Marsha: “Food has always been my frenemy — my best friend and my worst enemy. Now that I’m sheltering at home by myself, that relationship has really deepened! For me, it’s the loneliness that’s propelling me to the food. Sara Lee, Ben & Jerry, sadly, are my new best friends!
  • Justin: “Guilt and anxiety are making me binge eat like there’s no tomorrow. I can no longer visit my mother in the nursing home, and I feel so powerless. I wish I could comfort her more. And sometimes I feel extra guilty because I’m relieved I don’t have to travel there every weekend to see her. That’s when I eat even more.” 

In 1982, I originated the term “emotional eating” to describe the varied and conflicted, fluctuating and frustrating relationship many people have with food. Emotional eating is when you are lonely in the middle of the night and you look for comfort in the refrigerator. Emotional eating is when you feel bored and empty inside and cannot figure out what to do for yourself, so you binge and make yourself throw up. Emotional eating is about being hungry from the heart and not from the stomach.

And now we have a new term — “pandemic eating.” Why has pandemic eating become so frequent? Let’s first acknowledge that food is the safest, most available, cheapest mood-altering drug on the market. It temporarily soothes and consoles us when we are stressed which, for many of us, is a lot of the time now. Eating serves as a distraction, a diversion, and a detour away from discomfort. It serves as a respite from boredom.

So many of our normal pleasures have been taken away — socializing with family and friends, going to the gym, enjoying private time while kids are in school, going shopping, planning our summer vacation, even going to work. No wonder the “treat” of overeating provides such a tempting oasis. Let’s also add that people are drinking more alcohol to cope with tension and boredom. Liquor stores are considered “essential services” and have been open throughout the quarantine. Monitoring one’s use of alcohol is also important at this time.

Here are 12 strategies to help you declare peace with emotional eating while we are under quarantine.

  1. Accept that your eating will not be “perfect” at this time. There is too much stress during this “new normal” for anything to be flawless. The more you try to eat “clean” or “perfect,” the more you will obsess and struggle. Tell yourself daily that good is good enough. And strive for progress, not perfection.
  2. Do not put yourself on a diet at this time. Diets do not work in the best of times, and further restriction will set you up for feeling even more deprived than we already are during this time of COVID-19. Deprivation invariably leads to overeating and bingeing.
  3. Recognize that we are all in the same boat — we are all largely powerless over this virus. Your best friend, your neighbor, your sister are all having a hard time with eating. You are not alone. Reach out to a good friend and start a daily buddy check-in system where you chat or text each morning and each evening. Support each other’s efforts to eat mindfully, to plan some daily exercise, and to discuss the struggles of the day. Don’t be too proud to let your hair down and share your struggles.
  4. Understand that comfort food is not bad. We are entitled to eat foods that give us pleasure. When we provide enjoyable food and allow ourselves to savor them, we stave off deprivation and mindless eating.
  5. Strive for mindful eating whenever you can. Try connecting your eating with your inner cues of hunger and stop when you are full. Choose whatever you are really hungry for and eat it without guilt.
  6. Create structure every day for yourself and family. Get dressed every morning — lounging around all day in sweats or pajamas will not help your random eating. Both kids and adults need a predictable sense of organization and a pattern to their day. This includes regular meals and regular snacks. Lack of structure leads to feelings of chaos which can heighten anxiety and stress eating.
  7. If you have lost a loved one at this time — due to the virus or other causes — you will need to acknowledge the depth of your sorrow. Take the time you need to grieve. Don’t grieve alone. Crying and sharing your pain is of the deepest value.
  8. Develop “non-food” nurturing strategies. These include treats and time-outs from your regular routine. Beth started a weekly Zoom book club with her friends. Deborah got a puppy. Daniel started cooking meals and documenting them on his Facebook page.
  9. Value the importance of self-compassion. Rather than beating yourself up if your eating has gotten disorganized, speak to yourself with the same kindness you would offer to a beloved child. Compassion may be the single most important ingredient on getting your eating back on track.
  10. Practice gratitude together with your family. Have everyone acknowledge one thing they are grateful for at the dining room table. And have everyone complain about one thing that is bothering them as well! Make room for both gratitude and complaint
  11. Find humor wherever you can. Laughing is the antidote to emotional eating. One of my favorite cartoons has a refrigerator complaining as its owner opens the door for the hundredth time that day. The refrigerator grumbles to himself, “What again? Now what do you want?” Renee, a client of mine, taped a sign on her refrigerator which said, “You’re bored, not hungry. Now go do something else.”
  12. Seek help if your eating, anxiety, or depression is feeling out of control or getting worse. Reach out to a therapist or a nutritionist for a virtual support session.

And then there is the case of Kimberly. “My eating problems have really gotten better during this time! My biggest worry in life is FOMO (the fear of missing out). All of my friends are dating and going to parties all the time. I’m secretly jealous of them because I’m more the shy type. Now that everyone is stuck at home with social distancing, we’re all in the same boat. So, just for now, I don’t have anything to be jealous about, and it’s really a nice relief. Now I can focus on reading, napping, and gently getting in shape for the summer.”

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