It is no coincidence that during the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, manufacturers of processed comfort food saw a huge spike in sales.
Mr Kipling Cakes, Bisto gravy granules, and Ambrosia custard were flying off the shelves as fast as their manufacturers could make them. According to the FT, so too did Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, an old fashioned 84-year old product that made a resurgence due to the massive desire for convenient and contentment-inducing foods. The science is clear on why we eat calorie-dense comfort foods; it helps us to manage our stress levels.
One study by Tomiyama et al. entitled ‘Evidence of the chronic stress response network in high-stress women’ found “long term adaptation to chronic stress in the face of dense calories result in greater visceral fat accumulation (via ingestion of calorie-dense food), which in turn modulates HPA [hypothalamic—pituitary—adrenocortical] axis response, resulting in lower cortisol level”. In other words, those who emotionally ate and gained weight tended to cope better with stress.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has caused untold stress due to its impact on our families, lifestyles, and jobs. And there has been a very real impact on our physical health; nearly half of a group of millennials (those aged between 25–42) in the United States questioned by the American Psychological Association (APA) in March 2021 confirmed they had put on weight in the pandemic, with the average gain being a not inconsiderable 18.5kg. So what can we all do to get our nutrition back on track?
Strategies for getting your nutrition back on track
While it may be argued that we are biologically predisposed to seek out calorie-dense foods in times of stress, perhaps because lack of food was one of the biggest stressors for our forebears, there are still things we can do to get back on to a healthier nutritional track, including:
- Don’t go to the supermarket: All supermarkets are laid out and designed from the ground up to sell you foods that are profitable. By not going to the supermarket, you will not be drawn into buying food products that contain lower levels of nutrition. Consider online shopping or visiting your local farm shop. This will further ensure you only buy the foods you need rather than the ones which are being promoted at the end of each supermarket aisle.
- Don’t have trigger foods in the house: this ties into the reason not to go to the supermarket – if you don’t have low nutrition, calorie-dense, processed foods in your kitchen cupboards, you can’t eat them. Instead, ensure you have lots of fresh fruits, nuts, and other healthier alternatives such as carob instead of chocolate.
- Write a weekly meal plan: By simply writing a list of the foods you and your family will eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the week and only buying those items, you can ensure you only have foods in the house which you need.
- Build-in some comfort food but keep it moderated: While some people are able to cut out all sugar and comfort food from their diet, this is not realistic for most. For this reason, it may be preferable to build into your weekly food plan some comfort foods, but in a moderated way, both in quantity and volume. And by making or baking this yourself, you can choose which ingredients you add.
Turning to comfort food in times of stress is not just normal, we are designed to do it. But when the emergency is over, we need to take back some control and use strategies to get our nutrition back on an even keel. The four strategies above may seem simple, but they can make all the difference for the health and wellbeing of you and your family.
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