At first, the jokes about gaining the “COVID-19” were funny. Now, they’re starting to hit a little too close to home.
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So your pandemic diet isn’t perfect. Go easy on yourself, says psychologist and weight management specialist Leslie Heinberg, PhD, MA. “There are a host of factors that are leading people to get off track,” she says. “But beating yourself up is not an effective weight-loss strategy.”
And it’s never too late to change course.
Why the coronavirus gives you the munchies
There are good reasons you’re off your eating game right now, says Dr. Heinberg, such as:
- Interrupted routines: Routines help us stick to habits, like packing a healthy lunch before heading to the office. With our routines out of whack, our habits may have flown the coop. “Lack of routine and structure makes it hard to stick to your usual goals — and right now, we’re all experiencing a lack of routine and structure,” she says.
- Increased access: At work, where options are limited, it’s easier to avoid food cravings. “If you’re working from home now, you’re working where the food is,” Dr. Heinberg says. “It’s harder to ignore the cravings when the kitchen is 10 feet away.”
- Emotional triggers: Emotional eating is real, and it’s powerful. And right now, we’re feeling a lot of emotions, including stress, sadness, worry and even plain old boredom. Those feelings can make us more likely to munch mindlessly — and more likely to reach for not-so-healthy comfort foods.
“Add the emotional triggers to the changes in our environments, and it’s a perfect storm for problematic eating behaviors,” she says.
Healthy eating tips: Pandemic edition
While there are a number of good reasons why your diet has veered off course, you can steer it back on track, Dr. Heinberg says. Here’s how to get started.
1. Forget weight loss
Bombarded with articles proclaiming that now’s the perfect time to start a new weight loss plan? Ha, yeah, no. “Set realistic goals,” she says. “Don’t focus on losing weight, but on maintaining your weight during the pandemic. If you can get through this without gaining, consider that an enormous win.”
2. Think quality
During this time, it’s especially important to eat healthy foods that can boost your immune system, like lean protein and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. “Rather than worry about calorie counts or how many carbs a food has, think about putting good fuel into your body,” she says. “That will help you fight illness if you were to become sick.”
3. Set small goals
With routines in disarray, it’s a hard time to make major lifestyle changes. Now might not be the time to go vegan or carb-free. Start with smaller, achievable goals like adding one more serving of fruits or veggies to each meal.
4. Check in with your stomach
Before you grab a snack, ask yourself: Are you really hungry? Or are you just bored? Or lonely? Or anxious after watching all the doom-and-gloom on cable news?
“Our default is often to go to the kitchen and eat something. But you can control the mindless eating,” Dr. Heinberg explains. “If you’re bored, put in a movie or play a game with the kids. If you’re lonely, call a family member. And if you actually are hungry, then think about what might be a reasonable, healthy thing to eat.”
5. Give up the all-or-nothing mentality
You chose the microwave mac-n-cheese for lunch instead of the salad you’d planned. “You’re human,” Dr. Heinberg says. But too often, we follow up a less-than-ideal food choice with a declaration that we’ll start the perfect diet tomorrow or next Monday.
Of course, there is no “perfect” diet. Instead, aim to make a better choice for the very next snack or meal. “Don’t beat yourself up. Just make healthier choices next time,” she says.
6. Don’t try to make up for off days
After a day of snacking, you might be tempted to cut calories the next day to even things out. Skipping breakfast and having yogurt for lunch will only leave you famished — and set you up to binge on sweets again. “Don’t try to make up for your past eating behavior by not eating enough,” Dr. Heinberg says.
7. Avoid trigger foods
Have you ever bought a box of cookies, planning to eat one as a treat each night — but you end up eating the box in a day? Welcome to the club.
But it’s a lot easier to resist an ice cream craving if there isn’t any in your freezer. “Keep the trigger foods out of your home,” Dr. Heinberg recommends.
8. Focus on your food
When we’re distracted, it’s surprisingly easy to finish a bag of chips without even registering what they taste like. Try to avoid eating lunch in front of your laptop or snacking while you watch TV.
“Put your food in a bowl or plate, sit at the table and focus on what you’re eating. Enjoy your food: Try to notice the taste, the smell, the texture,” Dr. Heinberg suggests.
9. Practice self-compassion
Above all, Dr. Heinberg says, be kind to yourself. That’s always important, but never more so than during a global crisis. “This is an extraordinarily challenging time, and we should all cut ourselves some slack.”