Are You Craving All the Carbs?

We’re about 12 days now into COVID-19 hibernation, and this week in my newly virtual consults it seems like the theme is eating all the carbs, all the time. If responses to this tweet from the CBC Calgary Eyeopener are any indication, there’s a lot of this going around.

If this is you too, know that it’s completely normal and okay. This is an ridiculously stressful time. People are dying. Sudden and widespread unemployment is upon us. Trips and events have been cancelled. Do NOT beat yourself up over this.

CBC invited me on this morning to talk about this, so click here to listen, or read on for the written version…

(That’s not me at the start, by the way, using the term “COVID-25.” The interview starts at 0:25. Here’s the written summary from CBC.)

Why do we crave carbs when we’re stressed?

While some people lose their appetite, many of us eat more when we’re under stress, a natural response to the stress hormone cortisol. Plus we are biologically wired to find eating pleasurable, so of course it’s an antidote to unpleasant feelings – grief, worry, sadness – which are plentiful right now. Food can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good” chemicals in our brain. It’s no surprise we’re reaching for it when faced with so much troubling news.

Other contributing factors include dieting, difficulty sleeping, or suddenly working 12 steps away from the fridge. Throw a structured schedule out the window and add a couple of children to your workday and boom… we’re in a perfect storm.

Is it okay?

Yes! Eating to soothe our frayed nerves and deliver some much-needed pleasure on a bleak day is absolutely okay, especially if it’s helping you connect with others or nourish yourself. There are certainly worse ways to cope with a global pandemic.

You’re the best judge of whether your eating habits are serving you, but here are a few signs that you might want to make a change:

  • If food is your only coping strategy or source of pleasure.
  • If it isn’t actually helping you feel better, emotionally. (But make sure that’s not just that nagging “diet police” voice in your head.)
  • If it’s making you feel physically uncomfortable.
  • If it’s keeping you from dealing with a problem.
  • It’s happening enough that it’s negatively impacting your health.

Normally, if we trust ourselves to choose the food we need in the moment, this will ebb and flow. We might choose food more for pleasure one day, but then crave a hot bowl of oats on another.

Want to rein it in?

If your eating habits feel like they’re not working for you, the best approach starts with non-judgemental self-reflection. It helps to explore your values and unique relationship with food. What’s triggering problematic eating for you? (What isn’t these days?) But seriously, are there particular emotions, people, or times of day?

If this is a serious problem for you, it might help to get professional help understanding your behaviour, but change is most effective when you’re in the driver’s seat.

However, given that you may or may not have the time or mental energy for that at this precise moment, here are a few strategies that I find helpful with my clients:

  1. Put the focus on the nourishment, not the cutting back/out. While it’s misleading to say you can “boost” your immune system, nutritious foods (plus a healthy lifestyle in general) can at least help support it. Focus on that. For heart health, we try to set goals around adding (vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, beans, etc.) more than subtracting (sugar, processed meat, etc.). The best defense is a good offense.

  2. Think about your motivations for healthy eating that are relevant at the moment. For me, I know that eating past fullness makes me feel irritable and tired, which is the last thing I need when I’m trying to hold it together with the kids here all day. (And this study suggests I’m not the only one.) Or perhaps happy bowels might be more of a motivator for you? Seriously! If eating enough fibre keeps you regular, that might help motivate you more than the vague idea of long-term health, especially right now. Or would eating well help you focus better during all of those Zoom meetings?

  3. Prioritize, don’t perfect. Dietary perfection isn’t necessary, now or ever. An all or nothing approach rarely works in the long run. But when dietary advice comes at you from all sources, it’s hard to know what matters most. Fruits and veggies? Immune-boosting supplements? Non-GMO? Low-carb? Organic? ACK! Think 80/20 and focus on the basics…

  4. If you’re getting three reasonably balanced meals a day, you’re doing fantastic. If you’re at home suddenly lacking structure and feeling overwhelmed, simply remembering to eat breakfast and lunch may help you make more rational decisions about what to eat later in the day. A nutritious snack might help. And if you’re still going out to work, especially in demanding settings like healthcare and retail, make time to take a breather during your shift to eat, even if it’s just trail mix and/or an protein drink. Race cars don’t run without fuel. Honour your body’s innate need for food and you may find stress eating becomes much less of a problem for you.

  5. Eat the carbs! If you crave carbs, I have good news for you: There are lots of carbohydrate-rich foods that support our health. Sweet potatoes, oatmeal, sprouted-grain toast with peanut butter, whole-grain crackers with hummus, and pasta are a few of my favourites. (I wrote a whole blog post about options for this.) And you don’t have to be a saint either. If you like a little brown sugar in the oats, or a hint of jam on your toast, have at it. You’re still getting lots of nutrition and perhaps satisfying that craving.

  6. Move tempting foods out of sight. Ideally, you give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you like, food no longer becomes an issue, and you can pass right by a cake sitting on the counter. Ideally. (This is a key principle of Intuitive Eating, and if it sounds appealing, I highly recommend the books. You can get there.) But in the meantime, while you’re stuck at home, you might just find it easier to hide it away so you are having it when you choose to do so, not when you’re ambushed.

  7. Explore other coping strategies / sources of pleasure. What works for you? A walk or other physical activity? A play with the dog? A break from the news? Talking to a friend? A hot bath? Cliched I know, but I look forward to it nightly. Meditation may help with stress and pushing the pause button before grabbing that bag of chips. Journaling is another stress management tactic that can also serve a dual purpose – helping you manage stress and gain more awareness around your eating triggers. Have several tools in your stress management toolbox.

Be kind to yourself! Feeling bad about yourself will likely only worsen the problem. Shame is counterproductive here. Practice self-compassion: If food is a coping mechanism for you, that’s okay! I’m glad you have a coping mechanism. We all need to deal with how scary and stressful it is right now. At some point you might decide to back off and lean on other strategies, but that’s your call.

My concept of eating in your Sweet Spot still applies: Healthy, delicious, and “right for you” are all contextual. What you were craving, what was healthy and right for you on February 25 will undoubtedly be different on March 25 in the middle of a global crisis.

Have compassion for yourself and trust yourself to know when baking cookies is just what you need, and enjoy every bite.

Edited to add: I was curious after discussing this on Calgary’s CBC Eyeopener to see what the literature actually says about stress and weight gain, because that was how they introduced the topic. The “COVID 25” (pounds) they called it.

Will a stretch of stress eating cause you to eat so much you gain 25 pounds? There’s surprisingly little evidence for it. This systematic review looked at studies in university students and couldn’t say conclusively that stress was a driver in the supposed “freshman fifteen.” This study looked at whether stress explained weight differences between women of higher and lower socioeconomic status over a nine year period and again, it didn’t.  

However, combine the stress with the moving less and sleeping poorly that many of us may be experiencing, and it’s possible. Everybody is different. But recognize that many factors drive weight, we tend to balance eating naturally, and at the end of the day, health is about what you do more than what you weigh.

How about we agree to take care of ourselves as much as possible, and make weight one less thing we worry about? 

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