It may feel like a lifetime ago at this point, but grocery stores were a huge part of the story in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were long lines, toilet paper shortages, and a lot of fear and uncertainty. Eventually, many of us settled into what feels at least something like a routine. But people’s eating habits may still be in flux. The stories of people gaining weight during lockdown are so common that there’s even a term for it: The COVID 15. For people who are now struggling with that extra weight or looking for ways to get healthier, the expert advice today is a little bit different than during pre-pandemic times.
The Psychological Impact of Weight Changes During the Pandemic
The uncertainty of the moment makes trying to lose weight difficult.
“This is a total upheaval of everyone’s entire social support system, so it’s not the time to overhaul your life. It’s the time to find a way to become more stable,” said Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, RD, a senior research investigator and bariatric program manager at Penn.
Tewksbury also points out that weight is just one clinical indicator of overall health, but many people struggling with their weight internalize weight biases, in other words, believe they are bad in some way because they have higher weights. Studies have shown that people who are too hard on themselves when it comes to weight tend to have less success trying to lose it.
“People may think gaining weight is somehow a failure, but the truth is that we’ve all had our lives overhauled, so we need to relearn how to do certain things,” Tewksbury said. Part of the relearning process includes reevaluating and resetting goals. That can involve learning how to enjoy the foods you like in a reasonable way, like controlling portions or eating more slowly. It’s also a question tied to the feelings of stability or instability a given person may have during quarantine.
Tewksbury says it’s important to create new, stable eating routines, and start small.
“Focus on what’s in front of you, and break it down until you can handle it, even if it’s just figuring out what you’re going to have for dinner tonight,” Tewksbury said. “People who start too long-term tend to get overwhelmed and regress.”
The feeling of instability is also a factor for people with eating disorders. Uncertainty is a significant underlying factor in many disorders, with people turning to food to give them a sense of control over other parts of their life.
Without our normal ability to interact with the people and places that usually make us happy, it’s natural to turn to food or alcohol as a replacement, according to Kelly Allison, PhD, a professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders. But she says that it’s important to ask yourself if you’re doing it in a way that truly makes you happy.
How to Shop for Healthier Groceries
“Having the grocery store be such a stressful place to go right now can make this worse,” Allison said.
Allison recommends tried and true methods to cope: make a list and stick to it, don’t shop hungry, spend your time in the produce/meat/dairy sections, and avoid the tempting foods placed on display at the ends of the aisles.
In terms of what to buy and what to avoid, Tewksbury says it’s important to be mindful of calorie counts, sodium level, and fat content. While food labels will give you this information, she notes dried and frozen foods tend to be higher in calories and sodium, prepared dinners or anything with a powder mix tend to be higher in sodium, and the same suspects may have trans fats added.
One way to take control is to think through what you want to buy in advance.
“Think about how much you want these foods in your house staring at you,” Allison said. “Do you need three bags of chips or just one? Would you be better off buying snack bags as opposed to family-sized bags?”
In the beginning, it was tempting to eat like it was a snow day and rely on shelf-stable comfort food, and evidence shows that’s exactly what most of us did.
Sales of Campbell Soup, for example, are booming, with the company reporting a 35 percent increase. The same is true of Kraft Heinz, which reported its first sales bump in years as the rest of the country shut down. In our current phase, supermarkets have settled and people may have less anxiety about their ability to get fresh food each week. That may mean people who gained weight through the first phase but who are now maintaining are actually ready to lose weight.
“If that’s the case, it may be a good time to ask yourself where you want to be when you come out of this stay-at-home period,” Allison said.
How to Cook and Eat at Home in Healthier Ways
Another important shift is not just what we eat but where we eat and with whom. People used to grabbing breakfast on the go or lunch with co-workers are eating three meals a day at home every day of the week. School lunches are now home lunches, and almost every dinner is a family meal. While Allison points out that eating as a family can have emotional benefits, it can also be an extra burden, particularly for parents.
“That’s especially true if one person is designated as the cook,” Allison said. “It’s important that families communicate, make a schedule, and divide the food prep so it doesn’t fall on one person as we all juggle multiple roles from home.”
Allison also points out some people may see a benefit from designating one or two days as a cooking day for the week, then portioning out food into containers. This can take away the burden of having to prepare meals each day while also serving as portion control.
But more than what foods you buy or how you approach home cooking, Tewksbury and Allison both agreed it’s important for people to give themselves a break during tough times.
“We need to be kind to ourselves,” Tewksbury said.