Lockdown legacy: Eating in isolation
How have lockdowns affected behaviours? Dietitian Sophie Medlin reveals the ingredients for healthy and long-lasting wellbeing
Lockdown is affecting people’s eating behaviours in several ways. As we see in social media and perhaps among our friends, there is a group of people who ate all their stockpiled food on day one and are struggling to manage their eating.
Then there are the other group who are exercising more, cooking more and baking enough banana bread to feed their whole street. If you feel your eating has improved in isolation, then that is great news. If you’re struggling, it is likely your eating behaviours are being influenced by stress and anxiety, boredom and your access to food.
Fight, flight – or eat?
If you think you are eating more because you are stressed and anxious, it can be useful to remember that this is simply a natural response to the rise in stress hormones in your body.
When we are stressed, the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered which means that our body is getting us ready to either fight something, or run away. In order for us to be able to run or fight, our body tells us to fuel ourselves up so when we are stressed, we are hungrier and we are more drawn to energy that our bodies can access quickly – refined carbohydrates.
Unfortunately, at the moment, we just need to stay at home to fight COVID-19 so fuelling that stress response with lots of sugary snacks is the last thing we need. If you can recognise this eating behaviour in yourself, now is a great time to find ways to manage your stress more effectively.
Some people can recognise their stress impacting their eating and try a five-minute guided meditation instead. Others might do some stretching, listen to some music or even laugh at some funny videos. Anything that takes your mind off the stress and creates a safe feeling will help.
Comfort and joy
If you’re eating because you’re bored, this is also unsurprising. We’ve had a many of the activities we normally enjoy taken away from us. When we do things that bring us joy, the reward system in our brain is lit up. This is basically our brain telling us to keep doing what we’re doing. When we’ve had lots of our recreational activities, most of our connection with others and often our work disrupted to taken away, we can become overly reliant on food to light up that reward centre. If that sounds like you, then think about planning your days out and setting some intentions for the day.
Think about filling your time with activities that still bring you joy or satisfaction. Self-care, exercise, connection with friends and family – even virtual connection – creativity, puzzles and cleaning or gardening can all help to give you other activities that light up your reward centre and can distract you from eating out of boredom.
If you think you’re eating just because the food is available, remember you currently have a unique opportunity to manage your food environment in a way that you may never get to again.
You can choose at this time whether your house is going to be like a corner shop with temptation at every turn, or more like a health food shop with a good balance of healthy food and some delicious and nutritious snacks.
Exercising to punish ourselves for our eating habits or eating to reward ourselves for exercising – how to we break away from the unhealthy mindset?
Sometimes, we get in the habit of only exercising to burn off the food we have eaten or to earn the food we want to eat. It is helpful to remember that you burn more calories sleeping than you ever will in a workout and that is because, your body constantly needs lots of calories just to keep your organs functioning.
For that reason, you really shouldn’t aim to burn off all the energy you eat because you need some of it! Think instead of finding a form of exercise that you enjoy and try to do it for the mental health and physical benefits. If you find yourself caught up in this, consider stopping tracking the calories you’re burning and start recording how you feel before and after instead.
What if my stress comes from feeling guilty about the food I am eating?
Sometimes, if we eat foods that we think we ‘shouldn’t eat’ or we find ourselves struggling to stick to a diet that we’ve prescribed ourselves we need to take a step back and reassess things. Often this happens because we’re overly restricting ourselves and we’re not enjoying the food we have decided we ‘should’ eat.
The binary language we can develop around food with things being ‘good’, ‘clean’ or ‘bad’ can lead us to feel shame and guild when we eat things that are ‘bad’. This often makes us feel like we’ve failed and might as well give up.
Try thinking about WHY you’re eating as opposed to what you’re eating. Unpack some of the thoughts, feelings and events that are happening around your less healthy eating behaviours and work out if there is a pattern. If you think you’re eating for emotional reasons work on the underlying triggers rather than beating yourself up for the symptom of the problem.
Should we eat at set times and at a table?
Developing good habits around eating and trying to eat mindfully can help us to stay connected to eating and make better choices around our food. This might mean making a conscious effort to eat at the table or without distraction. You also may find that if you are eating mindlessly, having set times when you know you’ll eat may help to curb some unnecessary snacks. For example, if you know you’re having a snack and a break that you’re looking forward to at 11.00am you might be able to hold back on other things at 10:30am.
How important is food to our mental health?
In the same way we can eat a good diet for our heart, we can also eat well for our brain. Fortunately, they’re usually the same foods! We know that people who suffer more with anxiety and depression and who are more likely to develop dementia often have a diet that is closer to a typical
Western diet which is characterised by processed food, snack products and fizzy drinks. We know that people who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, some meat and dairy, oily fish and nuts and seeds enjoy better mental health and the structure and function of their brain is improved. The right nutrition is of significant benefit to our brain function. This year, a nutritional supplement that I developed called Heights was released which is focused on optimising brain function and providing all the nutrients you need for your brain to function at its best. For more information, visit yourheights.com
The WHO suggests a healthy diet plays a crucial role in determining how well people recover from COVID-19, whilst the UK government is facing calls to launch a healthy eating campaign to educate the nation on how food can boost the immune system during lockdown. What thoughts?
We can’t really boost our immune system through food or nutrition so anyone trying to sell you a product or service on that premise is trying to financially benefit from the current situation. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables and good quality protein sources is the best thing you can do to ensure your body is functioning as well as it can.
We don’t ever need mega doses of any vitamins – these put our body under extra pressure and are likely to put us at greater risk. We should also never allow anyone to put anything into our veins unnecessarily so IV drips promising immune benefits should be avoided and some companies have come under fire from the Advertising Standards Authority for promoting this.
Should we avoid takeaways?
Many of us enjoy eating out in restaurants and this is sometimes being replaced with take-aways at the moment. Depending on what you order, food from delivery services doesn’t have to be as bad as we always think it is.
If you are careful not to order more that you need, make sure you’re still getting at least two portions of vegetables and you limit the fried food, you can still enjoy a weekly takeaway. My favourite is a Vietnamese papaya salad with a side of vegetable spring rolls!
I moved all my clinics to virtual consultations and I am offering patients, with a diagnosed bowel condition, appointments on a pay-what-you-can basis. This has been great for me because I am still able to help the community I care about during the crisis, as well as keep some income coming in. I don’t traditionally like online appointments but it has been working well and it makes me very happy to see the improvements my clients are making.
Author: Sophie Medlin