Limiting stress and boredom-induced eating during home isolation

Thursday, 30 April 2020

What is boredom or stress-induced eating?

We’ve all been there. Standing in front of the fridge or pantry staring at the contents, thinking “Hmmm…what do I feel like?”

The answer? Everything.

First off, you are not alone. Many of us are eating too much, and it’s a well-noted side effect of COVID-19 isolation.

Often, we’re not really hungry. We may have eaten not long ago but here we are again looking to satisfy and soothe the senses, feelings or emotions; seeking the smell, sight, taste, texture and comfort of food.

But why?

Because food can be a quick, easy and enjoyable way to pass time. Maybe it’s a filler when you’re looking to fill the dullness that boredom or unwanted feelings such as stress or anxiety bring.

Essentially boredom or stress-induced eating is a type of ‘non-hungry’ eating that happens almost unconsciously.

Food can bring great comfort and perhaps has done so since the day we were born. Look at the way babies feed: Food and comfort in one armful.

Seeking comfort from food is not a problem in itself, if it’s just one of many ways you support yourself in such times.

However, if it’s the only or main management strategy, it can lead to problems of its own. And this can affect your diabetes management, and overall physical and mental health.

Causes of boredom or stress-induced eating

The social distancing and home isolation measures we’re enduring because of the Covid-19 pandemic make it very challenging to limit boredom or stress-induced eating. Even for the most motivated individuals.

Staying at home means there is unlimited access to your fridge and pantry.

Combine this with having less, or more, to do or worry about – such as whether you’ll still have a job tomorrow – and it’s obvious why we’re seeking comfort. With no appointments to attend, no physical social gatherings, no fitness or education classes to go to, there is less to occupy us. Loneliness, concerns about food and essential provisions, and the NEW shopping experience itself with hand sanitizers and social distancing can also play on our minds. Concerns about your finances, the virus itself, worry about those you love, and fears about your own health may well be occupying your thoughts.

It’s no wonder some of us seek the instant comfort that food brings.

In a nutshell, food makes us feel good.

Eating prompts the brain to release ‘feel good’ hormones, known as endorphins, which can produce a sense of pleasure or euphoria. In general, few of us enjoy the monotony that boredom or the lack of comfort that stress brings. Food can be a satisfying go-to when life gets too much.

How could boredom and/or stress-induced eating affect your diabetes management?

In the short-term, non-hungry eating may lead to higher blood glucose levels (BGLs). If you are eating more food than you need physically, you will require more insulin to keep your BGLs within a safe range.

In the long term, non-hungry eating (and stress for that matter) can lead to BGL elevations, and for some, weight gain. Continuous higher than safe BGLs, (for example, higher than 10mmol/L two hours after the start of a main meal), can lead to blood vessel damage, which is largely how diabetes complications start.

Strategies to minimise boredom and or stress-induced eating during isolation

  1. Plan what you are going to eat each day and roughly when

A typical daily eating plan includes three main meals and one to three small healthier snacks, spread evenly over the day. Have an idea of what you’re going to eat at these meals. Check in with how hungry you are (see point 5 below), especially if you’re not as active as usual, and make changes to portions where needed.

See the Healthy Meal Ideas and Healthy Snacks factsheets for inspiration.

  1. Use the 4 D’s

The 4Ds is a method used to reduce urges when quitting smoking: however, it can be applied in a similar way to reduce the urge to eat when you’re not physically hungry.

The 4Ds are: Delay, Deep Breathing, Distract, and Drink Water.

Delay: Delay the start of eating, eg, ask yourself to wait five to 10 minutes. By then, the urge may have moved on.

Deep breathing: When you feel the urge to go to the pantry, take 10 deep breaths in and out beforehand.

Distract: Find another support or something else to do eg, go for a walk outside, hang out the washing, call a friend, read a book.

Drink water: Have a hydrating glass of water before you eat.

  1. Avoid eating in front of a screen

If you’re eating in front of the TV (or computer, or smartphone, for that matter), chances are you’re paying more attention to what’s happening on the screen rather than to the food you’re putting in your mouth. We tend to eat more mindlessly in front of the TV, meaning we pay less attention to the act of nourishing our bodies with food and don’t taste and experience the food as much because we are distracted. This not only makes food less satisfying, but it makes it easier to miss cues that you have eaten enough, such as feeling that your stomach is getting full.

  1. Keep nutritious foods front and centre and limit nutrient-poor foods for a stronger body and mind

Aim for the food you see first when you open the fridge or cupboard to be healthy options such as fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrain crackers, yoghurt and unsalted nuts. It can help to keep some pre-prepared cut up fruit and vegetables in the fridge so that when you want a snack, the healthy option is an easy and fast option.

Biscuits, lollies, chocolate, chips, ice-creams and other high-energy, nutrient-poor highly processed foods can become the ‘easy option’ because they take little preparation. They’re so easy that you may find yourself eating some while still staring into the fridge or pantry thinking about what to eat. To reduce the intake of these foods (which if eaten too much can weaken your body), it might be helpful to have them out of sight, or even buy less of them.

  1. Rate your hunger

A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between physical hunger and ‘non-hungry’ (psychological) hunger that is perhaps more about emotional support needs or boredom. Psychological hunger can be a desire to eat caused by thoughts, a situation, emotions – such as stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness. When you feel hungry even though you recently ate, check to see if what you’re feeling is really a hunger brought on by something psychological.

When you start feeling like you want something to eat, try rating your hunger on a scale of one to 10, with one being starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of five or six means you’re comfortable, neither too hungry nor too full. It’s best to eat when your hunger is at a three or four; and to stop when it reaches five or six.

  1. Become familiar with your boredom or stress cues

Once you start tuning into true, physical hunger it will become easier to identify your boredom or stress-induced ‘wanting to eat’ cues, and the times that you are engaging in boredom or stress-induced eating. For example, is it when you’re doing particular work tasks, is it while you prepare dinner or when watching TV in the evening, or when you are tired and don’t feel like you can stop and rest. If you can identify when it happens, then you can question it next time it happens and perhaps use another support instead, such as having a rest, doing some stretches, taking a wander outside or calling a friend.

  1. Keeping your hands and mind filled with other things

Keeping your hands busy is a great way to move your thoughts away from non-hungry eating and to stay in the moment. Activities such as gardening, playing with your pet, knitting, crafts, reading a book or magazine, listening to music or a podcast, meditation, squeezing a stress ball, doing Theraband exercises, playing cards or a board game and doing things around the house such as folding washing, vacuuming and ironing.

You can purchase a Resistance Training Guide and Theraband from the Diabetes Shop.

  1. Avoid panic buying more food than you need

It can be tempting to stock up or panic buy more than usual during these extraordinary times. Having more food than usual in the house can be problematic for some people, particularly if cupboards are full of high energy, nutrient-poor, processed foods.

Aim to keep your pantry stocked with nutritious shelf stable foods like legumes, wholegrain pasta, lower glycaemic index (GI) rice, quinoa, oats, canned fish, high fibre cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, wholegrain crispbreads and crackers. Freeze wholegrain breads, lean meat, chicken and seafood; and frozen fruit options (eg bananas, berries) that are great in smoothies.

Remember that there’s no need to buy out the stock at your local grocery store. There’s no indication from food retailers that there are supply issues. It’s also important to consider the needs of others and not overbuy.


Kate Battocchio, Accredited Practising Dietitian

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