Eating in Stressful Times
Food is not only a biological necessity but also an emotional reality. In times of high stress and uncertainty, our emotions may be all over the place. These days, we are living our lives against the backdrop of country-wide lockdowns and curfews to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Given the pandemic and social distancing protocols, it is only natural that we crave a sense of physical and emotional security through food.
Research shows that social isolation perpetuates many forms of unhealthy eating behaviors. This is especially a concern for people with a history of eating disorders. Given that we come face to face with empty food aisles every day, it is normal to develop a “scarcity mindset” which creates the illusion that there are not enough resources for everyone. This mindset can be triggering for many as it reinforces hoarding behavior and binge/restrict cycles.
Inge Huijsmans, currently a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, Dr. Ili Ma and colleagues published a study in 2019 and found that scarcity mindset increases activity in a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex which is associated with our subjective value systems. People with this mindset also have reduced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which is involved in goal-directed decision making. In light of these findings, the researchers suggest that a lack of access to resources following a period of abundance impacts people’s decision making abilities and value judgments. As such, given the current circumstances, it is understandable that our choices are less than optimal these days.
Food is a popular topic of conversation during the coronavirus pandemic. Social media is abundant with images of COVID-19 snacks. The discourse around weight gain has also gained momentum. If you have a history of eating disorders or you are currently quarantined with people who have maladaptive coping styles that involve food, you might feel triggered these days.
Prof. Suzanne Higgs and Dr. Jason Thomas from the University of Birmingham published a review article in 2016 which highlighted the impact of social environment on people’s eating behavior. Based on their review of previous research, they suggest that people tend to follow certain norms around eating that are based on cultural expectations and environmental cues. According to research, we tend to follow a “model eater” when we are not sure what is considered “normal” with regards to eating. Given that our eating habits are influenced by model eaters, our habits are likely to change in times of acute stress.
In 2013, Prof. Lenny R. Vartanian from the University of New South Wales and colleagues found evidence for the idea that we monitor our food intake based on how much others eat. Across three modelling studies, the researchers found that people tend to adjust their food intake based on perceived norms around eating. For example, the study participants ate less when they were in the presence of a model who ate very little than a model who ate a large amount of food. According to the researchers, people might be unaware of how much others affect their food intake as most of the study participants failed to accurately report the factors influencing their eating behavior.
In terms of the pandemic, if you perceive that it is normal and appropriate to eat an x amount of food based on what other people are doing, you are likely to follow along.
Food as coping
If you find yourself in front of the refrigerator each time you hear about a COVID-19 case on the news, you are not alone and you are not doing anything wrong. Research shows that people are more likely to reach for “comfort foods” when stressed.
Stress impacts our eating habits in various ways. For instance, people who normally engage in restrictive behaviors around food tend to eat more in times of stress. On the other hand, those who do not normally restrict food intake might eat less in times of stress.
As Ph.D. student Ashley M. Araiza and Prof. Marci Lobel from Stony Brook University discuss in their review article, our coping styles also impact whether or not we turn to food in times of stress. Research suggests that emotion-focused coping or avoiding stressors tends to result in unhealthy eating behavior like skipping meals.
In light of this research, it might be worthwhile to become aware of the myriad factors that influence our eating behaviors in times of high stress and uncertainty. When it comes to “healthy” coping, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with crises. As long as you take an active role in fulfilling your needs, you will be alright. When in doubt, ask for support and virtual hugs.
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