If the queues in the supermarkets are anything to go by, there is a lot of eating going on! For most people, our calorific needs have not necessarily increased during this COVID 19 crisis yet the urge to eat has. This phenomenon is nothing new and much of it lies in our evolutionary ancestry in which the human body and subconscious mind have evolved to perceive weight gain as an indicator of improved survival. This was fine and dandy back in the day, when over-eating involved pigging out on extra roots, fruits and vegetables. But now, with our food supply burgeoning with junk foods, the consequence of survival eating may scupper its original objective.
Food brings comfort to us, as it releases dopamine and serotonin into our brains, making us feel instantly better. However, this is short-lived, and as levels fall off again, the urge arises to comfort eat again. How do you tell the difference between emotional hunger and real hunger? Real hunger grows gradually and lasts longer unlike a craving which can come out of the blue or arises to change an emotional state. This is why some people eat when they are sad or anxious. True hunger is a result of a lack of food, no matter what emotional state we may be experiencing. Another good clue to tell the difference is that emotional eating is usually only satisfied by one type of food, such as biscuits, bread, crisps or ice cream for example. True hunger is satisfied with a much wider variety of foods, because the body is screaming for nourishment, and not too fussy from where it comes.
The last two weeks have been extraordinary, the updates on the Coronavirus situation are constantly developing and understandably, feelings of fear and anxiety are high. We are in survival mode and naturally responding to the stress. While eating for sustenance is a good thing, experts say emotionally eating a lot of food with little nutrition can weaken our immune systems and worsen our moods at a time when protecting our bodies and staying positive is particularly important.
One of the simplest ways to avoid eating too many junk foods at this time, is not to buy them. Stick to your ritual of three meals a day, even if your routine has changed and snack only on wholefood, if true hunger arises. Ask yourself “am I about to eat because I’m physically hungry, or because I feel stressed or sad?” If the answer is the latter, good advice is to consider turning to other sources of comfort: breathing exercises, movement, spirituality, social connections (from a distance), hobbies or time in nature, among others.
With many of us now at home, we can spend more time in the kitchen. If you are new to cooking meals from scratch, now is a good opportunity to experiment with flavours and ingredients. Practice making a few homemade meals that you can enjoy making over and over again, long after this crisis passes. Seek real comfort in building on your cooking skills and creating a repertoire of recipes that you and your family will love.
Although many people eat more in anxious times, some people lose their appetite and eat very little, if at all. We can go back to our evolutionary ancestry to understand that stress can shut off appetite and digestion. Yet again, this is a survival instinct to ensure that we can fight or flee from a physical threat, such as a hairy mammoth, without having to pull up on the side of the road for a cheesy snack! This is evident in extremely stressful conditions in which many of our health care workers are finding themselves. Working long hours, under immense pressure with the added call for action required, many will not even feel hungry until well after their shift is over. Under these conditions, the body will release glucose from liver and muscles to keep them going. Fat stored in adipose tissues can also be mobilized for energy. But again, these are short term measures. It is vital that these people are nourished, replenished and allowed to rest and recover between shifts. To digest food properly, we need a relaxed digestive system - warm teas and broths can help your body loosen up after a stressful period, while protein shakes and electrolyte packets provide energy when appetite is low.
For those with children at home, who seem to be grazing non-stop, it is okay if they are grazing on the good stuff. Each morning lay out a little box with their snacks - fruit, veggie sticks, yogurt, popcorn and the occasional sweet thing to put a daily limit on snacking. Kids too are feeling the anxiety and also have that natural inclination to seek out comfort in food. Let them bake their sweet treat and clean up afterwards as the distraction will take their minds off things. Like adults, they too must learn that emotional eating does not fix the emotion but may leave them feeling jittery from too much sugar, adding to anxiety or leave them feeling low (after the sugar crash) intensifying feelings of sadness or loneliness.
These are exceptional times and while it is important to stay informed, do try to limit exposure to all the bad news. Take comfort in routine, in three square meals, in leisure time and self-care. Take comfort too in each other and the exceptional response of our community, local businesses and healthcare workers – “ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” has never offered so much comfort!
All the best to everyone, Irene x
Ré Nua Natural Health Blog
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