Uncertain times. Self-isolation. Social distancing. COVID-19. Pandemic. All words or phrases we can go the rest of 2020 (or our lives) without. The harsh reality is, all of these things currently describe our social climate, and this climate and environment are not what we’re accustomed to. As a result, our routines have changed, habits have been broken, and new rituals have been adopted. Eating is at the forefront of these changes, and many have struggled with their relationship to food and eating since lockdown.
I have spoken to many friends who have made self-deprecating comments about their weight gain over these past few months. While all I want to do is comfort them with “Oh no, you look great!”, I also want to relay the reality that it is okay if you’re not moving as much, eating more, or have gained weight in self-isolation. Here’s why.
1. Your routine has changed.
The fact is, all of our schedules have changed. Your Sunday meal prep may no longer be because it is no longer necessary. You can make your meals day to day since you’re home. You might not be waking up as early to eat breakfast, or you might be snacking later on in the day. A small grab-and-go breakfast with your nonfat latte is no longer, neither is your salad you used to have 15 minutes to scarf down at work. THIS IS ALL OKAY.
Embrace the change in your routine. Realize that while normalcy as we knew it has now evolved for the time being, we can still be empowered and take control of our meal prep, eating habits, and how we choose to accept that things are different. We can even try new things in the kitchen!
2. You’re likely not moving as much.
Replay your pre-COVID work or school day in your head. Go ahead. Take a moment to do this. Did you bike or walk to your destination? Climb the stairs to your office or the train? Walk or run with a family member, friend, or your pup? The point I’m trying to make is that we were much more active prior to all of this. It’s tough to say and acknowledge, but it’s true, and this is also OKAY. But why is this okay?
It’s okay that we’re not moving as much because this means that those who are still under the shelter-at-home order are abiding by the guidelines. It means we care about people and are showing it by social distancing. It means we’re doing our due diligence for society and the greater good of public health. While people are still getting out for runs and walks, it may not be as far or as long. Of course, there are the few exceptions for those who are still self-motivated to do at-home workouts. Kudos to you, my friends, but you must admit it’s still not the same as intense as gym workouts. We have to give ourselves and others grace, exercising or not.
3. Your sleep pattern may be off.
We no longer have to be in bed by 11PM since we no longer have to answer to our 6AM alarm. A lot of us are staying up and sleeping in later. Some may still be getting the suggested 7-9 hours per night, but many are not due to stress, anxiety, insomnia, and/or “quarantine dreams”.
When an individual is chronically sleep-deprived (less than 7 hours per night), ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increases and leptin (the satiety hormone) decreases. When this occurs, you eat more. Dr. Michael Grandner from the University of Arizona shared at the Food and Nutrition Conference of 2019 that those who are chronically sleep-deprived tend to eat 300-500 more calories per day than those who sleep well.
Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation on how to achieve a better night’s sleep.
4. Your hormones are out of whack.
In addition to an increase in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and decrease in leptin (the satiety hormone), epinephrine and cortisol are released when the body is under stress. Worrying about finances, anxiety about contracting COVID, and the psychological effects of self-isolation all qualify as stressors.
When epinephrine (aka adrenaline) is released, your body breaks down glycogen (stored glucose/simple carbohydrate) in the liver. When cortisol is released, your body actually produces glucose in the liver. Yes! Our body is so incredible, it can produce glucose when the body is in need. Any fight-or-flight response instigates both hormones to be released. Having more glucose, or sugar, in the body actually decreases appetite because our body is considered “fed”, so people in isolation may be experiencing waves of no appetite followed by ravenous bouts.
5. Objective or perceived life stress (PSL) can lead to binge eating.
According to a study about isolation and eating habits, “perceived social isolation [is] associated with greater binge eating”. Isolation means we’re alone and/or separated from society- our friends and family- those who bring us joy and meaning to life. With a lack of socialization, loneliness increases, and behavioral changes ensue. Behavior is directly correlated with eating habits, thus, these behavior changes and possible cognitive distress can trigger binge eating. Another study concluded that perceived life stress (PLS) and cognitive restraint can lead to stress eating comfort food. This type of stress eating can be addicting and difficult to break because this behavior can give a false sense of emotional relief and control over something.
Psychologically speaking, eating can be about control. For those with eating disorders- behavioral issues, trauma, stress, and perfectionism can all be reasons for their existing condition. You can see how self-isolation, losing a job, or the unknown would all be fairly aggressive triggers for these disorders- worsening the condition or causing one to relapse. If you or someone you know is struggling with their relationship to food, check out this article titled, ” Binge Eating Disorder and Isolation: How to Break Out of the Cycle”.
Here are some other resources to seek help. In addition, please contact your physician or a local eating disorder clinic for better care and guidance.
A change in appetite and weight gain are normal when self-isolating. Our minds and body’s adapt and meld to our environment and social climate. This adaptation might involve eating more and moving less. It is our bodies response to stress, change, and boredom (which I failed to mention earlier). Please be kind to yourselves, give yourselves grace, process and feel your emotions, and reach out to loved ones or medical professionals if you need help. I am always here as a listening ear should you need one.
Love you all. Stay safe and take care. Xo Danielle