COVID-19: A Time for Above or Below the Neck Eating?

If hunger isn't the problem, then eating isn't the solution

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Obesity-related conditions seem to be linked to a worsened effect of COVID-19, according to the World Obesity Federation. The European Association for the Study of Obesity, along with other North American obesity related organizations, have noted, “If you are living with overweight, obesity or diabetes, you are not at an increased risk for developing COVID-19 – but you may be at risk for more severe symptoms and disease progression.” So, I guess eating white chocolate peanut butter by the scoopful isn’t exactly wise, huh? 

Who isn’t feeling the emotional burden of isolation, lock-down, quarantine these days? For many, this leads to stress-related eating, gobbling, wolfing and munching. Oh, and chomping, too. Some even joke that “COVID-19” means gaining 19 pounds during time at home. 

It’s understandable. You’re at home, bored, tense and the pantry, refrigerator, and countertops are filled with easy to mindlessly eat treats. These high-sugar, rich-in-calorie foods can generate lots of short-term “feel good” energy, a dopamine-packed sense of pleasure, leading to a temporary distraction from feeling the strain of home-bound restriction, and soothing negative emotions. 

Research at the University of London by Asta Medisauskaite, and Caroline Kamau, found that one form of emotionally based eating, binge eating, is associated with the occurrence of occupational distress, including burnout, at this time of financial calamity. These five factors, they found, may leave one especially prone to binge eating:

1)      Mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression

2)      Body image issues, including frequent DIEting and weight changes before the COVID-19 pandemic

3)      A highly impulse-ridden personality, which might result in excessive gambling or drug use

4)     Eating when not hungry for reasons that aren’t about food

5)     Having friends and relatives with emotionally disordered eating

Ever notice how many diet books there are? That’s because DIEts don’t commonly work for meaningful weight loss. Think about it. How many people do you know who have DIEted and actually maintained their weight loss?  Only 3% to 5% of DIEters who lose weight maintain significant weight loss. 

DIEting can lead to binge eating, overeating, chaotic eating patterns, and can teach you to ignore internal signals of hunger and lead you to be out of touch with your body’s natural hunger and satiations signals. 

Do you know what kind of an eater you are? Here are seven types, at least one of which may include you:

  1. Unconscious eater who eats while doing something else 
  2. Chaotic eater who leads an over-scheduled life and who eats on an “eat-n-go-when-time-is-available” pattern
  3. Refuse not/Waste not eater who eats whenever food is available, and often cleans her plate, regardless of actually feeling full
  4. Emotional eaters are triggered by uncomfortable emotions rather than hunger—more about this one in a moment
  5. Careful eaters tend to be vigilant about what foods they put into their bodies and are extremely nutrition conscious
  6. Professional DIEters who are perpetually DIEting, who eat not to promote their health but to lose weight
  7. Intuitive eaters make food choices without experiencing guilt, eat when hungry, respect their sense of fullness, and enjoy the pleasure of eating

It’s fairly easy to determine which of these eating styles you’ve learned and maintained over the course of your life. The most common and often the more challenging to overcome is #4, the emotional eater.

If you show signs of these following behaviors, it’s time to develop some rational responses to the thoughts that lead to these unhealthy feelings and actions, that can’t anyway change COVID-19, being quarantined, unruly kids or boredom:

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. One minute you’re not even thinking about food, the next minute you’re starving. You hunger goes from 0-80 within moments. You may not have any stomach rumblings and may have eaten just a short while ago.
  • Your cravings are for one certain type of food, such as pizza, ice cream, or chocolate.  With emotional eating, you feel that you need to eat that particular food and that no substitute will do! Real hunger can be satisfied with almost any food, even with a glass of water.
  • It’s all “above your neck.” An emotionally based craving begins in your mouth and in your mind. Your mouth wants to taste the pizza, chocolate, or ice cream. You have strong pictures in your mind of that cupcake calling your name. It isn’t. If you believe it is, your problem may be more of an issue than you think.
  • It feels extraordinarily urgent. Emotional hunger urges you to eat NOW! There is a demand to instantly ease your emotional discomfort with food. 
  • It’s always paired with an upsetting emotion. Your husband yelled at you. Your child is in trouble of some kind.  Your boss won’t let up. You are beyond your limit with being quarantined. Emotional hunger occurs in conjunction with an upsetting or distressing situation. 
  • It’s often connected to automatic or absent-minded eating. Emotional eating can feel as if someone else’s hand is scooping up the candy and putting it into your mouth. You may not notice that you’ve just eaten a whole bag of chocolate almond kisses.  
  • Emotional eating does not stop in response to feeling full.
  • After you eat from your head, you feel guilty about eating. The paradox of emotional overeating is that you eat to feel better, and then end up angry or disappointed with yourself.  

Here are five things to do if you are eating from your head, not from your empty stomach:

1. Ask Yourself

  • Am I biologically hungry?
  • What am I feeling?
  • What do I need?
  • How can I meet this need? 
  • Research indicates that individuals who respond to a negative situation with both positive thoughts and constructive action are able to avoid emotion-based eating 85% of the time. 

2. Stop

3. Do imbalanced breathing, meaning exhale twice the amount you inhaled

4. Reflect on:

  • “What do I want to achieve by eating right now?”
  •  “What is there about this food?”
  •  “Is this what I really need?”

5. Choose a healthier behavior

Finally, keep in mind the observation, author unknown, if hunger isn’t the problem, then eating isn’t the solution. 

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