Remember when our biggest worry was whether we could resist the doughnuts in the office? Kind of seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?
But if you're one of the millions of Americans now ordered to stay home to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, you may find yourself facing a different challenge: 24/7 access to your fridge and pantry.
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Before you beat yourself up for finishing that family-size bag of popcorn, though, you should know that it's normal for your eating patterns to be out of whack during this chaotic time.
"There are so many different aspects to the collective 'food struggle,'" says Sydney Greene, RDN, a New York City-based dietitian and founder of the private practice Greene Health. "Close proximity to the pantry coupled with disrupted routines is the perfect recipe for mindless eating."
These are also intensely stressful times. "High levels of stress and anxiety are known to increase cravings for sugar or highly processed foods," notes Greene. "Eating these foods can help calm negative feelings in the short term, but they present negative physical and mental consequences in the long term."
What's more, if you're someone who typically relies on fast-casual or takeout food for sustenance, the need to suddenly cook all of your own meals may present some serious challenges.
The bottom line: If your eating habits have taken a turn for the worse over the last few weeks, don't freak out. Your days don't have to look like full-on food marathons for the foreseeable future. In fact, the key to mastering healthy habits at home lies in one simple strategy: mindful eating.
So, What's Mindful Eating?
You've probably heard of mindfulness, the practice that involves tuning out distractions and focusing completely on the present moment.
"The practice of mindful eating uses the foundation of mindfulness before, during and after eating," explains Greene. "While mindful eating is about utilizing all of the senses and not participating in distracting behaviors, a key part of it is showing up to experiences with food without any judgment."
With less judgment comes less food guilt, which may be why mindful eating training has been linked to impressive health benefits, from decreased levels of inflammatory markers in the body to binge eating disorder recovery, per a small study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine.
Below, we explain exactly how to use mindfulness to avoid overeating while you're working from home. And remember: We're all in this together.
1. Designate Meal Times
For most of us, the workday is punctuated by lunch. Whether you're an early bird at the salad bar or don't get around to eating until 3 p.m., your midday meal typically takes place once — and then it's done.
The problem with working from home is that there's basically nothing stopping you from eating from sunrise to sunset. You might have breakfast at 9 a.m., opt for a snack at 11 a.m., eat lunch at 1 p.m., snack again from 3 to 4 p.m. and then roll right into happy hour, followed by dinner and dessert.
Here's the thing, though: It's a lot tougher to tune into our natural hunger and fullness cues when we snack for hours on end.
"When we sit down to eat without distraction, it's easier to slow down and begin to recognize levels of fullness throughout a meal," Greene says. "Becoming attuned to hunger and fullness takes practice and patience, but having meals and snacks at designated times throughout the day (and enjoying them with time and without distraction) will help to regulate metabolism, mood and energy levels."
Isabel Smith, RDN, a New York City-based dietitian and founder of the private practice Isabel Smith Nutrition, says finding ways to stick to a routine is critical in preventing overeating while we quarantine. "Make a schedule for yourself! Draw it out, make alarms, set timers," Smith suggests. "You can do this for meals, but also for exercise, walks or anything else you need help getting done."
2. Focus on Your Food
Plain and simple, the fewer distractions we experience during meals, the better.
According to a February 2013 review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who eat while distracted tend to eat more not only in the moment but also later on in the day.
Those findings aren't all that surprising. After all, eating while distracted makes us less aware of how much we're actually consuming, so we may treat ourselves to dessert, forgetting about the half sleeve of cookies we ate after lunch.
"I recommend putting your fork down between bites, noticing how the flavor of the food evolves as you chew and continuously checking in to see if you are still enjoying it."
To get more mindful at mealtimes, make small choices that will encourage you to focus on your food.
"Turn off the TV and other electronics while eating," Smith recommends. "Sit with your food before you start to eat and take a few deep breaths before you dive in."
You can engage multiple senses by arranging your food in an aesthetically pleasing way (instead of eating it straight from the container) and smelling its aromas before eating.
"I also recommend putting your fork down between bites, noticing how the flavor of the food evolves as you chew and continuously checking in to see if you are still enjoying it," Greene says. The more you slow down and focus on the meal in front of you, the less likely you are to overeat.
Finally, consider keeping a food journal that prioritizes mindfulness instead of macros.
"Instead of tracking calories and fat grams, track how hungry you were before you ate and how full you were after eating, both on a scale of 1 to 10," Greene suggests. "You can also note your mood before, during and after eating as well as the taste, smell and texture that you noticed throughout the dining experience."
3. Nix the News
Real talk: We are living in unprecedented times. Fear, uncertainty and anxiety are running rampant, and most news headlines just add fuel to the fire.
What does that have to do with the pint of ice cream you polished off last night? Actually, a lot.
"Some studies suggest that individuals may eat 40 percent more calories when stressed," Greene says. "This could be related to the volume of food consumed or the type of food. We know that when stressed, people consume a greater proportion of calories from high-sugar, high-fat or processed, carbohydrate-containing foods, as these have been shown in the short term to dampen negative emotions."
These foods also trigger reward systems in the brain that can stimulate the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. But while you may feel satisfied by these types of foods in the moment, you may not feel so great if you eat three servings of them daily for the next few months.
To keep your stress levels at bay and your intake in check, make an effort to avoid consuming news an hour before as well as during meals and snacks. An overload of COVID-19 info is likely to leave you feeling pretty anxious about the state of the world right now, which may serve as a cue for emotional eating. Thanks, but no thanks.
4. Snack Responsibly
"When it comes to snacks, I recommend including a source of protein as well as a source of fiber to maximize short- and long-term satisfaction," Greene says. "Examples include fruit and nut butter, veggies and hummus or yogurt with pumpkin seeds."
If your snack is coming from a box or bag, be mindful of portion size and place it on a plate or in a bowl.
"Remember, the serving size on a nutrition facts label is a suggestion," Greene says. "As you become attuned to feelings of hunger and fullness, you can choose to have more or less of a serving."
For unpackaged foods like fruits and vegetables, a serving is about the size of your fist, Greene adds.
If you find yourself simply snacking to snack, try to replace the habit with another activity.
"Start writing daily gratitude lists, begin journaling, pick up a hobby you used to do or make space to move," Smith suggests. "I'm finding yoga incredibly helpful right now."
5. Be Kind to Yourself
Since no one truly knows yet how long we will be stuck at home, vow now to be nice to yourself for the duration of your quarantine. That means ditching the "screw it" mentality — you know, when you fall off your healthy eating game and figure you might as well eat all the things before you get yourself back on track.
News flash: "No one ever felt better by doing this!" Smith says. "Don't do it now."
Instead, view this forced pause as "a key time to get yourself more focused on your healthy behaviors," she suggests. Because when have you ever had the time to cook dinner every night and squeeze a 20-minute yoga flow in between meetings?
Above all, don't beat yourself up if you do occasionally find yourself emotionally eating during this time. Remember that mindful eating is about experiencing food without judgment.
If you find yourself overeating one day, note how it made you feel and craft a plan for the next day. Perhaps you call a friend instead of grabbing another snack or draw a bath instead of serving yourself a second helping of dessert.
Whatever you do, prioritize choices that will leave you feeling healthy and happy, both inside and out. Because we all deserve some extra TLC these days.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Eating Attentively: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Food Intake Memory and Awareness on Eating"
- Complementary Therapies in Medicine: "Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, Eating Behavior, and Psychological Outcomes Associated With a Mindfulness-Based Intervention for People With Obesity"