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Ask Stacy: Help! I’m Going to the Pantry to Comfort Eat

Leading sports nutritionist and exercise physiologist Dr. Stacy Sims answers your most pressing nutrition questions—this week in relation to the global COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine.

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Q: “Help! I’m stuck at home with a lot of food in the pantry and have an overwhelming urge to comfort eat. Do you have any advice?”

Lockdown. Pantries full of food. Getting used to the “new normal” of at-home training, at-home working, and trying all the online fitness classes we possibly can to avoid boredom. This combination of the new normal with no daily routine and the incredible stress this pandemic has caused is the ultimate trigger for emotional eating. In acute high-level stress situations, such as under a serious physical threat, our appetite is suppressed. However, less intense but more long-term stress—similar to what we are experiencing globally during this coronavirus pandemic—can affect eating behavior in different ways. 

It is estimated that around 30% of us eat less than normal when stressed, while most people eat more. This change in eating habits is primarily due to the fact that our stress response system shares the same neural pathways as the control of food intake, and the stress hormone, cortisol, is notorious for increasing cravings for salty, sweet, and fatty foods. Knowing this, we can look to address stress and reduce the triggers to eat.

One of the first aspects for controlling stress and the urge to comfort eat is being present, which we can also call “mindfulness.” There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.

Here are five basic techniques to try:

  1. Basic mindfulness meditation: Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing or on a word or mantra that you repeat silently. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on your breath or mantra.
  2. Body sensations: Notice subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling (without judgment) and let them pass. Notice each part of your body in succession from head to toe.
  3. Sensory: Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Name them “sight,” “sound,” “smell,” “taste,” or “touch” without judgment and let them go.
  4. Emotions: Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.
  5. Urge surfing: Cope with cravings (for addictive substances or behaviors) and allow them to pass. Notice how your body feels as the craving enters. Replace the wish for the craving to go away with the certain knowledge that it will subside.

Since most of the triathletes I know are more of a type-A personality and won’t sit still long enough to try mindfulness practices, this might also work for you. On the fridge and cupboard doors, put a note or reminder that will keep you accountable and away from the urge to comfort eat. Maybe you do some burpees or push-ups before you open the pantry. Trust me here—there is a method to the madness. By distracting yourself and getting your heart rate up you stimulate appetite suppressing hormones and increase the endorphin rush to your brain. It’s a win-win—not to mention you build in a few sneaky extra workouts!

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