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  • Writer's pictureJackie

Containing Comfort Eating Under Quarantine

(Being short might be advantageous. Or dangerous.)


Last week, I dropped a jar of seasoned salt on my head. Not on purpose, though come to think of it, that tactic might fix the sleeplessness that’s been striking since this stay-at-home order kicked in. No, I was using tongs to to slide a huge tub of mixed nuts to the edge of a shelf about 6 inches beyond my really unimpressive reach—I missed and turned the salt into a missile. (No damage done. Good thing it wasn’t the vat of nuts.) This is my go-to tactic to curb quarantine-induced comfort eating: not to knock myself out, but to store the really tempting stuff up high or out of sight. Once a day, I'd ask my son (now conveniently home from college and the perfect height) to reach the nuts, and I'd pour out a reasonable number. Asking him reminded me that I really didn’t want more than that because a) too many upset my stomach and b) I’m trying not to add pounds to my list of stressors. On the good days, this worked. Luckily, there are additional strategies in the toolbox, too!


COMFORT EATING, THEN & NOW


Now that we’re staying home, some of us have a lot more extraneous food in the house. In my case, with the kids home from college and Hubby doing most of the shopping (because his job takes him into the “outside world” on weekdays), my term as mayor of all cupboards-and-the-fridge came to an abrupt halt. Various forms of kryptonite, like salted caramels, have crept in. Do you too feel really lucky to have food and simultaneously maddened by some of it? That sentiment alone can send you snacking.


Not that a little comfort eating isn’t warranted now and then. We all do it sometimes, and if ever there was a sometime to do it, we’d probably pick now. Life during the COVID-19 crisis turns out to be, for all, incredibly anxiety-provoking; for many, a bit monotonous as we sequester at home; and for others still on the job, extremely stressful. All of these factors put people “at risk” for a whole lot of extra eating.


In fact, well before this new era, Americans comfort ate a lot. In 2011, the USDA released a report, which detailed our snacking habits. Using findings from the reputable NHANES 2007-2008, researchers made a few startling declarations, including the fact that, in the previous 30 years, the number of Americans who reported daily snacking rose from 59 percent to 90 percent. Additionally, the report noted, “Snacks provide on average about one-fourth of daily calories, greater proportions of alcohol, carbohydrates and total sugars, and lesser proportions of most other nutrients.” Yes, the stats are slightly on the older side, but it's highly doubtful they’ve trended downward.


STRATEGIES THAT LEAD TO MORE CONSCIOUS SNACKING


Though the days can seem kind of static right now, we may want to look ahead at future health. Common snacking practices can undermine efforts to maintain (or lose) weight, to control blood sugar and lipids, to lower inflammation, and the like. But comfort eating doesn’t have to derail us—or even be eliminated entirely. What if snacking became a more conscious endeavor? If those USDA stats hold, then roughly two-thirds of us are grabbing between-meal bites an average of 2-3 times each day. What can we do to rein in or redesign some of this snacking? Maybe one of these tactics will help.


Hide stuff. I know, I’ve already confessed my propensity for squirreling away snacks. But it’s effective because humans are highly visual creatures. About half of the brain is devoted directly or indirectly to vision. (MIT News, 1996) “Out of sight, out of mind” really holds true when it comes to snacks.


Begin swapping out less nutritious options. We all know “empty” calories when we see (or eat them). Make a list of your typical snacks & target one or two that might be leading you away from your goals. Then troubleshoot. Are you actually bored with jelly beans but still eating them? Perfect time to swap in fruit.


Schedule snacks. This lessens the possibility of mindless eating. Assign not only a time for the snack but write down the actual food you plan to eat. Even better, link the snack habit to an existing habit. For example, you might sit down daily with a child for a healthy snack, right after their favorite show.

Ask why you’re actually snacking. Much of our extra eating connects with causes unrelated to physical hunger. Stress obviously acts as a culprit. Fatigue also seriously contributes to cravings. With some self-awareness, it might be possible to cut some snacks from the daily routine. Once we realize something about our habits, we can’t “un-know” it, but we can try to address the underlying factors.

Finally, don’t beat yourself up. This may be the hardest habit to build because, alongside ubiquitous burger commercials, we also receive the constant cultural message that we should be perfect eaters. There’s no such thing. It’s okay to snack now and then. It’s a problem when it becomes a problem, impacting physical health, self-esteem, mood, etc. (And if you believe you’re struggling with disordered eating, please reach out for professional support. It can change your life. Request a referral from a physician or consult the National Eating Disorders Association, NEDA.)


Okay, and finally, finally... Do not attempt to reach overhead snacks without an assistant of the appropriate height.

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