Emotional Eating During COVID-19 Pandemic

Hand in front of an open fridge next to a window in the city

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Key Takeaways

  • During this time of overwhelming stress, many people are turning to food for comfort.
  • Emotional eating is not a problematic coping strategy unless it is your only coping strategy.
  • People who have previously recovered from an eating disorder may find themselves slipping into a relapse.
  • It's important to expand your coping skills during this time and practice self-compassion.

So there’s a pandemic raging outside and you’re locked in your residence with a larger stockpile of food than usual. You find yourself struggling with emotional or stress eating. What should you do?

Now is a time of overwhelming stress. Turning to food is a reasonable coping strategy, as long as it is not your only one. There are different strategies that may help you cope with the stress of the pandemic and the emotional eating that may occur as a result.

Tough Times

The age of coronavirus is a tough one. The world hasn't experienced a pandemic like this since 1918. No one alive is prepared to deal with this, and no one knows what to expect. It is a time of overwhelming stress. People are dying.

You may have lost your job, had to work longer hours on the front lines, been sent home from college, been separated from loved ones, or been quarantined at home with people with whom you have tense relationships.

No matter what your life was like before, it has been altered in fundamental ways.

You may be bored, stressed, or lonely. Shopping for food has become harder, and the privileged among us have likely stocked up more than usual to reduce trips to the supermarket. You may not be used to having access to a stocked kitchen around the clock.

What's more, the reduced structure to your day has disrupted your routine. If you find that you’re often in the kitchen, thinking about your next meal, eating more than you think you need, or stress eating—we promise that you’re not alone. Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW, an eating disorder therapist with lived experience, offers calming advice.

Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW

If you are feeling distressed that you’ve been turning to emotional eating to cope, I want you to know that eating to self-soothe is a valid and wise coping skill at any point, but particularly now!

— Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW

What Is Emotional Eating?

“Emotional eating” is not a clinical term, but a term we use to describe the phenomenon of eating in response to an emotional state, rather than hunger. People naturally eat for a wide variety of reasons—emotional states among them—and this is perfectly normal.

However, emotional eating has become a loaded phrase. We live in a culture that chastises us for eating in response to anything other than hunger. Diet culture would have us believe that any eating in response to emotion is a huge problem. This is a myth.

There is nothing wrong with you if you find that food is one of the things you turn to during this stressful time. It’s normal to celebrate or soothe with food and this is one tool you can use to cope with emotions.

It may become a problem, however, if it’s your only coping mechanism. And research shows that emotional eating is more common among those who do not eat enough.

That’s right! Those who do not eat enough for their energy requirements may find food comparatively more rewarding and contributing to increased emotional eating as well as binge eating.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following symptoms, it could be an eating disorder:

  • You find that obsessive thoughts of food prevent you from doing other things
  • You are eating an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time and feel out of control when doing so
  • You are skipping meals
  • You are eliminating food groups (without a medical reason)
  • You are throwing up
  • You are using laxatives
  • You are exercising excessively

Whether this is in response to current stressors or something that has been brewing for some time, please learn more about these disorders.

What About Relapses?

At this stressful time, people who have previously recovered from an eating disorder or disordered eating may find themselves slipping into past behaviors. This is not surprising and is nothing of which to be ashamed. Progress is not linear under the best of circumstances.

Relapses are more common during times of stress, and a pandemic is a challenge on an unprecedented scale. Take some time to think through the strategies that helped you during your recovery. Plan to reengage with those strategies.

Some things you might consider include meal planning, keeping a food journal, talking to a support person, or reconnecting with your therapist or dietitian.

How to Conquer Emotional Eating Right Now

Here are some tools you can take advantage of when taking steps to alleviate the effects of emotional eating.

Practice Acceptance 

First, practice acceptance. If food is what gets you through this time, it’s not the worst thing—actually, it may be good self-care.

Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW

I know it might sound counterintuitive, but allowing yourself permission to self-soothe with food is important. Because if you feel guilty about the way you’re eating and attempt to diet or restrict to make up for overeating or bingeing, you’ll continue to fuel that binge-restrict cycle. Allow yourself full permission to eat the foods you enjoy.

— Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW

You may be afraid of gaining weight during your time sheltered at home. You needn’t feel shame for not wanting to gain weight. Our fatphobic society tells us that gaining weight is scary. But when you survive the pandemic you will have done well for yourself—any weight gain is irrelevant.

Your body and your body weight will change throughout your lifetime. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes; maybe your pre-pandemic weight was suppressed or maybe you were stressed and needed to gain weight to survive. Maybe it will go back down when you return to “normal life” and maybe it won’t. You have value no matter what your weight.

Make Sure You Are Eating Enough 

You do not need to reduce the amount you are eating just because you are now quarantined at home. Our diet-obsessed society sends many messages that eating less is better and that we are more virtuous if we restrict what we eat. Many people are posting on social media about trying to prevent weight gain during social distancing.

However, such dietary restriction often backfires leading to emotional eating, binge eating, and the opposite of what’s intended—weight gain. You cannot control your body’s weight long term. By eating enough regularly throughout the day you will reduce episodes of stress or unplanned eating. You will also likely help stabilize your blood sugar and regulate your mood.

Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW

Creating a schedule while self-isolating can be challenging, but using meals as a schedule guide can be helpful, particularly if you’re working on eating disorder recovery. Aim to eat 5 to 6 times a day at a minimum (breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack).

— Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW

Unless you have medical-related dietary restrictions, meals should generally include all the major macronutrient groups (starch, protein, fat, and fruit or vegetable).

Expand Your Coping Strategies

If eating has been your only coping strategy, it is good to add new tools to your toolbox. Consider other activities that can soothe, distract, or discharge some nervous energy. These will be unique to each individual.

Some ideas for coping activities that you can consider include journaling, painting, calling or texting a friend, going for a walk (while maintaining social distancing), doing a guided meditation, or taking a bath.

Stay Connected

During this time of social distancing, it’s more important than ever to maintain our connections. Make sure you stay in contact with friends, family, colleagues, and coworkers. Fortunately, with phones and the internet, there are many options for doing so.

Before the pandemic we worried that people were using screens to isolate; now we recognize they offer amazing opportunities to connect. Get creative—have a FaceTime gathering or a group meal, have a group Zoom meet up or connect with friends during a shared online workout or Netflix watch party.

Have Self-Compassion

Eating more than you intended may be distressing. Beating yourself up about it only increases your distress.

According to Rosenbluth, “If you are feeling discomfort and guilt after a binge, please offer yourself self-compassion and eat the next meal regardless of what you ate earlier. It’s OK if you’re turning to food more than usual right now to cope. It’s OK if you gain weight. You are still worthy and valuable.”

If you find yourself turning to food, try to challenge the feelings of guilt. Practice being kind to yourself. Talk to yourself as you would talk to a close friend or young child you were trying to soothe.

Resist the Urge to Compensate

You may feel the need to restrict or engage in other compensatory behaviors in order to try to mitigate the impact of your eating. Don’t! These behaviors only perpetuate a cycle of disordered or binge eating.

You also don’t need to increase your exercise to make up for being more sedentary now. Even if others around you are talking about their diets or increasing their exercise, you do not need to. Let your body regulate itself.

Practice Self-Care

Now, more than ever is a time to try to protect your mental wellbeing. Take this time to slow down and rest. Try to nourish yourself, get enough sleep, and be gentle with yourself.

Seek Help

You do not have to go through this time alone. Even if you live alone or have limited means, there are resources and supports available to you. Many therapists and dietitians and eating disorder treatment programs are providing online services and there are several options for low-cost or free support.

Nonprofits, including the National Eating Disorders Association and the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness, both maintain directories and provide treatment referrals.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS
 Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.