The Covid-19 Diet: How To Avoid Eating Your Feelings During Lockdown
Are you snacking and drinking more? Have mealtimes gone out of the window? You’re on the C19 diet, says Victoria Lambert
Reaching for my seventh cup of instant coffee today, it occurred to me that perhaps — just perhaps — I have not been handling the lockdown so far in quite the controlled fashion I’d thought.
There have been elevenses of course, which — on occasion — have also been eaten at 10am and noon too, and sometimes at 4pm as well, because one biscuit is never quite enough, is it?
Now looking at my caffeine and biscuits consumption compared with a few weeks ago, when I was rationed to two cups pre-lunch and no biscuits ever, and I am clearly on the C19 diet.
The C19 diet is a polite way of describing the panicked, disordered, often frankly gluttonous eating patterns adopted by so many.
Frankly, the C19 diet is widespread. Actor Naomi Watts has admitted to stress eating, posting a picture of herself eating a whole cake with her hands, on Instagram, captioned: “Eat your feelings.”
Meanwhile, reality TV star Amy Hart has revealed online that her mother has told her off for non-stop snacking in isolation.
One friend tells me she has rediscovered Nutella and is now eating it from the jar, expecting to “roll out” of quarantine when it ends. Another says she’s taken to eating the food she loved as a child — tinned peaches, custard and Garibaldi biscuits.
Social media influencer Luisa Ruocco says she has become obsessed with baking. “Since the lockdown,” she says, “all I do is bake, eat it, and repeat! So far I have made brownies, carrot cake, doughnuts, beignets, banana bread, and pizza every week.”
Others talk of mealtimes disappearing into chaos. One says she and her husband now seem to eat supper at 10.30pm. Another talks of pies for breakfast and Jaffa cakes for supper.
Our experiences fit well with the new survey by King’s College London (KCL), which found that one in three of Britons (35 per cent) has eaten more food or less healthy food than normal, and that half of us (49 per cent) say we have felt more anxious or depressed than normal as a result of coronavirus.
One in five (19 per cent) are drinking more alcohol than usual as a result.
And while the odd week of crazed eating or drinking is surely a small price to pay for our Covid-19 sanity, experts are warning that unless we find a way to get back under control — as quarantine stretches on — there will be a reckoning.
Childhood obesity could be the next epidemic, say scientists from Columbia University in New York, in a study published in the journal Obesity last week.
Established data shows that children are already prone to gaining weight during the summer holidays especially among those already overweight. Moreover, this is the kind of weight that accrues year on year. “When a child experiences obesity,” says Professor Andrew Rundle, an epidemiologist who led the study, “even at a young age, they are at risk for higher, unhealthy weight, all the way into middle age.”
Part of the problem is that children are already spending more time on their tablets and phones — and there is a known association between screen time and snacking.
Then there’s the effect of coronavirus stress and anxiety, which can negatively affect eating habits — sometimes without us even realising it, says Dr Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology at Noom, a mobile health technology company.
“Periods of heightened stress are known to impact our daily living,” says Dr Michaelides, “which may change our relationships with food.
“Under such conditions, some people ignore or simply overlook feelings of hunger. For others, stress can lead to overeating — often unhealthy foods.”
Nutritionist Kim Pearson points out that humans need routine, especially when it comes to eating well and, if necessary, losing weight.
“Most of us have had our normal routines turned upside down,” she says. “Before the lockdown, we would have had breakfast at a certain time, perhaps so we could leave for work or school, then lunch to fit into the daily routine, and our evening meal when we came home. That need for a fixed time has disappeared.”
Instead, she says, people pick and graze, so they aren’t hungry when it is time to sit down. “Plus,” she points out, “if you don’t eat proper meals, your blood sugar levels go on a rollercoaster, so you keep feeling you need to eat something in order to stay happy.”
But it’s not just our emotions driving us to the biscuit tin, Pearson says: boredom, stress, and loneliness all play a part.
“There are so many reasons why we eat when we are not hungry,” she says. “When we want to move away from an uncomfortable feeling, we eat, distracting ourselves with food, filling that space inside us with food.” And the fact that many of us are having trouble sleeping could also be a factor, says Pearson. The KCL study reported that 38 per cent have slept less or less well than normal.
When we suffer insomnia, she explains, we produce more ghrelin, the hormone associated with hunger, and less leptin, the hormone that helps us feel full.
But it’s not all bad news. For some, the lockdown has been a force for positive change. Haley, a London mum who has two girls aged eight and six, has found that limitations on how she can eat have led to new habits and weight loss.
“I’m finding having to cook for myself three meals a day,” she says, “is preventing me from eating loads of junk. Whereas I used to grab a high- cal coffee and croissant for breakfast, a grab-and-go lunch, and head out for dinner and drinks with friends, I’m now eating more fresh, home-made food than I have in my life. I’ve lost 4kg in the past three weeks.”
She adds: “Partly it’s because of the limited availability of groceries — I’m not going to fill up my shopping basket with junk. Plus, wholesalers are delivering fruit and vegetables, so I’m cooking unusual stuff.” Nor are her daughters overeating, content to snack on fruit and a few biscuits. “I’ve definitely been spurred on to healthier eating habits,” she says, “and cooking more fresh stuff. I’d like to carry that on after lockdown ends.” But what can you do if erratic eating is your new normal. How can you get order back in your daily diet?
First up, says Pearson, keep a food diary and note your feelings when you eat. Consider what you could do instead.
“If you are feeling stressed and you have a desire to eat,” she says, “what could you do instead to calm down. Would it work to go for your walk, light a candle or have a cup of tea?” If the driving factor is loneliness, try to recognise that feeling and instead pick up the phone and contact someone.
Start a sleep routine, too, she suggests, so that you get eight hours a night. And if you do want a treat, plan for it.
“You shouldn’t be eating a food as a reaction to something, but as part of a meal.” So, make chocolate brownies and have them as a pudding in the evening, not staggered throughout the day.
Paying attention to how you consume food matters, too. Hurried eating or eating while distracted can prompt you to eat more, warns a University of Birmingham report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013.
It found that paying attention to a meal was linked to eating less later on, because our minds need time to register what we are doing. If we don’t concentrate, we may not “remember” that we don’t need more food.
And with fewer food distractions around, this could be the time — as Haley found — to shed excess weight.
Why not try periodic eating, like the five-day ProLon fasting diet, so that you leave lockdown healthier than when you started — or the 5:2 Diet eating plan designed by Dr Michael Mosely to help you lose and maintain weight long term.
“Most of us seem to have a fear of hunger,” says Pearson. “But that won’t be a problem if you start structuring meals properly. Get the recipe book out and develop some new healthy recipes.”
And her last tip to stop you cracking open the choc chip muffins or hoovering up some chorizo. “Stop buying these foods in the first place. It’s the only sure way.”
How to get back to your daily diet
- Be mindful when you eat so your body knows that it’s full
- Keep a food diary to see how much you are actually eating
- Start a sleep routine so you get plenty of rest
- Work out what’s causing you to overeat and solve the problem a different way
- Structure meals with filling ingredients like protein and try new recipes
- Try a fasting-style diet to remind you of what hunger feels like
— The Daily Telegraph