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Pandemic stress-eating: Priory specialist offers 10 tips to help avoid ‘emotional eating’ in a second lockdown

  • Anxiety and boredom provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic is causing many people to adopt unhealthy ‘coping mechanisms’ – including stress eating

  • When people eat in response to feelings or emotions, it can become an addictive pattern

  • Priory specialist eating disorder dietician Alexia Dempsey has been treating patients who have been stress eating, and offers her advice on how to ‘eat well’, as England adopts three-tier Covid restrictions and there are calls for a new national lockdown

Stress eating or over-eating has become a theme of the pandemic, with many worrying that their food choices are unhealthy, becoming addictive, and affecting well-being - physical and mental – and self-esteem.

In a YouGov survey of more than 2,000 people, commissioned by the British Nutrition Foundation, 27% admitted they were eating less healthily and almost half (48%) did not feel “motivated” enough to eat well. Boredom (63%) was the main reason why people were eating more unhealthy food.

Priory eating disorder dietician Alexia Dempsey says: “Certain foods stimulate the brain's secretion of opiate-like, ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as serotonin which, in turn, drives cravings. With the pandemic posing several challenges for those who are struggling, lonely, anxious or bored, leaning on food to ‘self-soothe’ can become the norm.”

And going into winter – with many people not working, looking for work, or working much longer hours from home - there is a daily temptation to over-eat or drink because of the constant availability of food and alcohol, absence of structure and financial fears.

Alexia, based at the Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, explains: “Emotional - or stress eating - is something that affects many of us to varying degrees at the moment. Stress, sadness, fear, boredom, and loneliness, this can all lead to emotional eating.

“These feelings can seem as though they need to be satisfied and ‘dealt with’ immediately. Over-eating can happen as a way of supressing or distracting negative thoughts and feelings and as such, it can be seen as a form of self-soothing. In the short-term, this response can feel functional but in the long-term it simply supports a cycle of difficult and distressing feelings followed by low self-worth.”

She adds: “With emotional over-eating, an individual will use food as a distraction from the negative. The foods may include chocolate, crisps, sweets, foods that are considered to be a ‘treat’. People often report carbohydrate-based binges, which can be linked to increased serotonin, a chemical found to alleviate low mood and anxiety. It therefore makes sense that in times of stress, such as the unprecedented and uncertain times we are currently experiencing, we will also see a widespread increase in people craving these ‘feel good’ foods – which in turn can lead to negative feelings of guilt as well as lower self-esteem, and poorer health and wellbeing.”

For anyone wanting to tackle over-eating, Alexia suggests the following 10 practical tips;

Plan in advance

Meal planning can help so try to use shopping lists, and this will help you avoid making food choices based on emotion. Plan for ‘treats’ too. There is lots of talk of needing to lose weight in the wake of Covid-19 but diets don’t work because they rely on the restriction of foods that are both highly palatable and often considered a reward. If you plan some ‘treats’ into your week, you are much less likely to feel you are missing out.

Hydrate

Being dehydrated can cause tiredness, sluggishness, poor concentration, irritability - and hunger. It’s easy for us to mistake dehydration for hunger. Ensure you are drinking enough fluid during the day - aim for around 1.5-2l

Scale up the fish

Make sure you include all the ‘food groups’ in your meals, because they all have a role in your health (eg - fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy.) If you can fit some fish in, a couple of times a week, as your protein, you might also be boosting your mood. Studies have shown that countries that have higher intakes of fish have lower incidences of poor mental health. Whilst this is not conclusive, fish has also been shown to support other health outcomes, so it is well worth adding to the menu.

Keep moving

Even during lockdown we are encouraged to exercise. Exercise doesn’t need to be a run; walking and getting some fresh air means you are getting a change of scene and this can help boost mood and overall health.

Variety is the spice of life

Include plenty of variety in your meals; it’s easy to get bored with food when you eat the same thing so have a Google and experiment.

Avoid distractions when eating

Eating and watching TV/using laptops and phones while you eat means that you are not engaging with your food and are likely to miss initial biological cues that you are satisfied with how much you have eaten.

Change rooms

If you feel like ‘’bingeing’ or are worried that you are about to engage in a binge, try and change your environment. Whether you usually eat or snack in your kitchen, bedroom or sitting room, aim to get up and move to a different area or head out to the garden for a while if you are lucky enough to have outdoor space.

Plan how to manage your feelings

Sometimes we need to distract ourselves from a feeling of wanting to binge; have a bath, paint your nails, read a book or go for a run. Staying social – even from a distance – is important during these times and a great diversion from food, or comfort eating. Call or message a friend for a chat if you feel tempted to snack

Seek support

Overeating or emotional eating can be passing phase, or it can become highly distressing behaviour. If you are feeling worried about your eating, seek support from your GP or a registered specialist professional.

Communication

Communication is key whether it’s with a treatment team or supportive loved ones and friends. Don’t bottle up your feelings. Be kind to yourself. And ensure you get plenty of sleep and keep a structure to your day - and your meal times.

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