How to avoid stress eating while you stay home

Nutritionist encourages portion control and mindfulness to avoid 'quarantine 15'

Piles of chips sit on an open laptop near the keyboard.

You may have heard of the “quarantine 15” — the phenomenon where you gain 15 pounds from being stuck inside during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many people, this may become a reality because of stress eating. However, there are ways to fight off those unhealthy cravings and practice moderation.

Bri Srnsky, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota, says that now, more than ever, many people are stress eating.

“Stress eating is related to increasing intake for reasons other than physiological cues — eating because you have certain feelings, have certain emotions, but not actually because your body needs the energy and intake at that time,” Srnsky said.

Uncertainty and consistent stress can be triggers to start overeating, she said. One way to combat this is to maintain a normal schedule.

“That’s going to be helpful in just some sense of normalcy that can allow for more normal patterns of eating,” Srnsky said. “I think a big issue for people who are engaging in stress eating is the schedule changes — like staying up later and the late-night snacking. The biological cues are thrown off a little bit with those schedule changes.”

Healthy alternatives to stress eating

Sometimes, even when your mind wants to eat healthy, your body’s cravings don’t cooperate. Srnsky calls this a “mouth hunger,” meaning that you may crave something crunchy, so you reach for a bag of chips instead of some crunchy carrots.

These food swaps can help you stick to your healthy eating plan:

Craving a savory treat? Instead of potato chips, try unsalted nuts.

Craving sugar? Instead of a brownie, try a baked apple.

Craving a crunch? Try veggies with a yogurt and herb dipping sauce instead of chips and dip.

Craving meat? Try poultry or fish instead of red meat.

Craving carbs? Instead of mashed potatoes, try mashed cauliflower.

Craving a fizzy drink? Try sparkling water instead of soda.

Craving a frozen treat? Instead of ice cream, try a homemade smoothie.

Craving a baked sweet? Try using applesauce instead of oil or butter.

If none of these swaps appeals to you, though, Srnsky does not discourage people from indulging in their cravings — in moderation, of course.

“I’m a big fan of following preferences, so I think that if somebody is wanting chips, that’s OK. Go ahead and do that,” Srnsky said. “The portion control piece is important, so don’t sit down with a bag of chips. Go ahead and portion them out into a bowl or napkin; be aware, and have that mindfulness.”

Practicing mindfulness

That mindfulness includes making sure to stay hydrated. Many times, our bodies mistake thirst for hunger. The next time you feel a snack craving coming on, drink a glass of water and reevaluate.

Srnsky also encourages having a variety of food options in your home. Using newfound extra time to get healthy snacks prepped and ready to grab may cut down on unhealthy snacking. Food journaling also is a great way to track your food intake and practice accountability, she says.

Part of staying healthy is staying active, too, but that can get tricky when you’re practicing social distancing. However, you can still use fitness as a substitute for an unhealthy craving.

“If you’re finding yourself really wanting to have that snack, step outside,” Srnsky said. “Walk around the block. Just ground yourself in terms of, ‘Am I really craving this, or is it out of boredom?’”

Self-checks are often helpful in providing a distraction, Srnsky said. It can be beneficial to ask yourself questions like these: Am I thirsty? Am I bored? Am I feeling anxious? Am I feeling something I’m trying to cope with at this point in time? Or am I actually physically hungry?

Additionally, Srnsky encourages having a dedicated work space that’s not close to your kitchen if you’re working from home. This can help prevent you from going to the fridge every time you need a break.

Or, at the very least, add a few more steps in your day.

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Coronavirus, Wellness