The COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic effect on the average person’s eating habits. During the lockdown period, in particular, maintaining eating habits from before the pandemic became nearly impossible due to shifts in grocery shopping practices, working from home and other new challenges. The stress and unfamiliarity of the situation led many people to overeat, resulting in a significant portion of quarantined people gaining weight.
Understanding the basics of stress and emotional eating can help you analyze how your own dietary habits may have been impacted by the pandemic. Continue reading to find out how stress can influence eating habits, the most popular quarantine food habits and how to develop good dietary habits that will keep you healthy throughout the pandemic and beyond.
How Stress Impacts Eating Habits
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body’s initial reaction is to shut down your appetite in the short term. This occurs through the nervous system sending the adrenal glands messages to release the hormone epinephrine, which is also known as adrenaline. Adrenaline helps spur the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, which is a heightened physiological state that pushes eating down the body’s list of priorities.
If the stress persists, however, the story changes. When stress becomes more long-term, the adrenal glands release a different hormone known as cortisol, which increases the appetite and may also raise motivation in general. This higher level of motivation includes the motivation to eat more.
After a stressful event ends, the body’s cortisol levels should naturally fall. But if the stressful episode does not go away quickly, or if a person’s stress response becomes stuck in the “on” position, their cortisol levels may remain elevated. Chronically high cortisol levels may prompt a person to eat more than they usually would in an attempt to cope with the stress.
Additionally, stress can have an effect on our food preferences. The combination of high cortisol levels and high insulin levels may cause people to increase their intake of foods higher in fat, sugar or both during times of emotional or physical distress. These foods are often referred to as “comfort foods” because they seem to have a feedback effect that reduces the body’s stress-related responses and emotions once ingested.
The way that fat- and sugar-filled foods can help counteract stress often makes people crave these sorts of foods more when they are feeling overwhelmed. Routinely eating fatty and sugary foods when stressed can create a cycle of stress eating that continues for as long as the stressful situation goes on or as long as the body’s stress response is flipped to “on.”
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Relates to Stress-Related Eating Habits
When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a full-scale pandemic in March 2020, most countries put strict measures such as lockdowns and travel bans in place to curb the disease’s spread. In response, many people began to panic and stock up on food items to try to feel better prepared and more in control during an unpredictable time.
Being forced to remain indoors for an extended period because of a pandemic is an inherently stressful situation. Additionally, humans are sociable beings, which means a period of enforced social isolation can induce more psychological pressures, causing some to consume larger quantities of food or eat more frequently as a coping mechanism for their mounting fear and anxiety.
Due to the exceedingly stressful conditions, many people experienced changes in their dietary habits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they were anxious about their next paycheck, anticipating food disappearing from the grocery store shelves or simply bored at home, many people found it easy to stress eat and overindulge during this prolonged period of stress and heightened cortisol levels.
4 Dietary Habits From the COVID-19 Lockdown
For a closer look at how the pandemic affected eating habits, here are four specific dietary habits that many people formed during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
1. Interrupting Dietary Routines
Under normal circumstances, people usually have a set routine for buying their groceries, which allows them to plan out their meals more easily. However, the COVID-19 outbreak forced many people to change the way they obtained food, how frequently they ate and what they ate. The pandemic threw off most people’s grocery shopping habits because not all grocery store staples were always available.
The 2020 Food and Health Survey serves as a gauge for how Americans handled such interruptions to their regular dietary routines by recording how they reacted and made decisions about food during the disruptions that come with a global pandemic. In sum, 85% of people have altered their food habits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2020 Food and Health Survey.
The challenge of not knowing when the grocery store will have certain items led to many people stocking up on multiple foods at once, rather than simply purchasing new food as they ran out. Having a larger quantity of food available at home facilitated stress eating, prompting 32% of survey responders to snack more and 27% to think about food more than they usually would.
In particular, 41% of those under 35 reported snacking more as well as 41% of parents with children under the age of 18. Based on these results, we can infer that the stressors of the pandemic that parents of young children must deal with, such as navigating remote schooling and working from home while the kids are present, might be manifesting in the parents’ approach to food. Namely, parents are snacking more when they are emotional.
2. Turning to Comfort Foods
As previously mentioned, people often turn to comfort foods during times of unease due to elevated stress and cortisol levels. In addition to higher levels of cortisol making people crave sugary, fatty and salty foods, people often crave these comfort foods because foods that are rich in sugar, fat and simple carbohydrates can reduce stress by stimulating the production of serotonin and dopamine — two hormones that have a positive effect on mood.
By stimulating the brain’s reward system, consuming comfort foods can distract people from negative emotions and stave off stress. This may seem like a good short-term fix, but it is an unhealthy way of coping with stress that typically leads to overeating junk food and other health complications, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol.
Understandably, however, a high-stress situation like the COVID-19 pandemic can drive many people toward comfort foods. To avoid making a habit of overindulging in comfort foods, you need to be aware of what may cause you to turn to food for comfort. Recognizing when you are most prone to reaching for a chocolate bar, a pint of ice cream or French fries can help you know when to choose a healthier coping mechanism instead.
These are the three main reasons people may have consumed more comfort food during the COVID-19 lockdown:
- Positive feelings: Certain comfort foods can increase pleasant feelings while decreasing tension. In fact, fatty, salty or sugar-loaded foods can activate the same brain regions of pleasure and reward stimulated in drug addiction. During times of uncertainty and anxiety, such as a pandemic, it makes sense for people to be tempted by the instant mood boost that a slice of chocolate cake offers.
- Self-medication: Because unhealthy foods full of sugar and fat can stimulate positive feelings, unhappy people are often drawn to them as a way to deal with their negative emotions instead of a better alternative — essentially treating junk food like therapy. This phenomenon is known as emotional eating, which is also common during stressful events like a pandemic. Unfortunately, eating your emotions does more harm than good because the guilt and energy crash experienced after a high-carb meal lasts far longer than the initial sugar high.
- Nostalgic comfort: The strong link between emotional memory and scents can affect your eating choices. The smell of a particular food can elicit vivid and detailed memories of past events, causing you to be drawn to that food for a sense of comfort or enjoyment. For people who look back fondly on the care-free feelings that tend to accompany childhood, certain comfort foods, such as their favorite dessert growing up, may have been more appealing during the pandemic due to their ability to take people back to a simpler time.
3. Cooking at Home
With so much extra time at home, many people began to experiment in the kitchen more. In fact, 54% of Americans reported that they began cooking for themselves more during quarantine. More impressively, over half of Americans said they would continue cooking at home after the pandemic subsides.
Cooking at home can have a positive impact on health because making your own food allows you to control exactly what goes into each dish as well as make healthier substitutions, such as replacing butter with avocado oil. When you choose healthy recipes and keep a tight rein on portion size, you can greatly enhance your health through cooking at home.
On the other hand, cooking at home can have a negative impact on your health if you only prepare convenient dishes or unhealthy foods. Unsurprisingly, the cooking trends of quarantine mainly included comfort foods like bread, pasta and desserts. Although cooking can be a productive, therapeutic activity, it can be all too easy to use the food you prepare as a coping mechanism as well.
4. Ordering Takeout
Because restaurants were not permitted to serve dine-in customers while in lockdown, to-go orders skyrocketed during the pandemic. In fact, the number of orders placed on food-delivery apps more than doubled over the course of the pandemic. Although it may appear as if people were merely craving comfort food from their favorite restaurant during quarantine, there is a bit more to the story than that.
Here are three of the top reasons people said they ordered takeout when lockdown restrictions were in place:
- Support local business owners: More than half of survey respondents — about 56% — said they ordered more takeout during the pandemic because they wanted to support their local restaurants.
- Get out of the house: In a time when opportunities to get some space from family members were sparse, many people looked to picking up a delivery order as their saving grace. One in five respondents who were parents said they opted to order takeout more because having to pick the food up gave them a good excuse to go for a drive and score a bit of alone time.
- Save resources: Approximately 44% of survey respondents said they chose to order more takeout because it saved them both time and money. Especially for those from smaller households, ordering takeout can help people avoid purchasing large quantities of ingredients to cook a meal for one while simultaneously saving them the time it would take to cook those ingredients.
5 Tips for Getting Your Dietary Habits Back on Track
With the COVID-19 virus still lingering, it is more important than ever to enhance your body’s immune system by practicing healthy dietary habits. To stay healthy, you need to prioritize eating well and taking care of your body as a whole. If you fell into some bad quarantine food habits — don’t worry. You can always break those old habits and form new ones instead.
Here are five science-backed ways to re-establish your good dietary habits:
- Try to eat a well-balanced diet: Eating a nutritious diet that focuses on fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats and protein from plant and animal sources is key to maintaining your health. Getting enough of each of these food groups will provide you with the essential nutrients we all need for sustaining normal immune function and overall well-being.
- Set regular mealtimes: During stressful times, adhering to a daily routine of scheduled activities, such as mealtimes, can help promote a sense of calm and normalcy. Having a set mealtime during which you turn off all distracting devices, such as the TV and your phone, and concentrate on chewing your food slowly will help you savor each meal more and avoid overeating.
- Stay hydrated: Hydration is a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle. Clean water is the healthiest, safest and cheapest beverage for staying hydrated. However, other drinks like fresh juices and tea are also suitable options for hydration.
- Practice food safety: You can minimize the risk of contracting a food-borne disease by following the proper food safety practices like thoroughly washing your hands before preparing any food, cleaning all food items and disinfecting any surfaces the food may touch.
- Get quality sleep: Inadequate sleep can negatively impact both your physical and mental health. On the other hand, getting enough sleep will give you the energy you need to make smart dietary choices the next day. Because stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic could affect your ability to sleep soundly, take steps to ensure a good night’s sleep, such as turning off electronic devices before bed, sticking to a regular sleeping schedule and avoiding alcohol and caffeine.
Browse the American Dining Creations Blog for More Dietary Tips & Resources
To learn more about healthy dietary habits, check out the resources available on the American Dining Creations blog. At American Dining Creations, we put a premium on healthy living and strive to keep health and wellness at the center of everything we do through initiatives like our Amerifit app that offers unrivaled access to nutritional information. As both a culinary company and hospitality company, we pride ourselves on providing our partners with fresh, innovative and customizable dining solutions.
If you have questions about how American Dining Creations can help you bring healthier dining options to your organization, contact us today.