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I've been overeating in lockdown out of anxiety and loneliness. How do I stop myself turning to food for comfort?

lonely woman eating lonely woman eating
It's not unusual to seek comfort in food when you're feeling lonely.
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  • It's incredibly common to comfort yourself with food when you're feeling lonely, anxious, or stressed, but overeating never makes you feel better.
  • You need to create new habits by starting small and not putting too much pressure on yourself, two registered dietitians explained to Insider.
  • Once you start, and ensuring you don't try to change too much at once, it'll kick off an upwards spiral.
  • It's imperative to be kind to yourself in the process though — forming healthier habits takes time and progress isn't linear.
  • Read more Working it Out here.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Dear Rachel,

For the past few months in lockdown I've found myself overeating more and more, which I think is due to loneliness and anxiety. I find my colleagues and work quite depressing, and so my mood has really dropped. Having always been a healthy and active person, I've been surprised by how this new situation has changed my habits — it's happened gradually but I'm definitely now comfort eating to the point of feeling ill most evenings, as a reaction to being a bit low, lonely, and bored. Every few days I tell myself I'll get back into my old healthy habits and stop mindlessly stuffing myself with crappy food, but it never lasts long. It's a bit of a vicious cycle. Please help!

— Anxious Overeater

Dear Anxious,

Firstly, please know you're definitely not alone, both in terms of feeling anxious and lonely, and overeating as a result. It's incredibly common, particularly during times of flux.

I'm also really sorry to hear you're feeling this way and not enjoying your work. It sounds like you're in a really tricky situation, which I hope you can improve soon.

From a diet side of things, I have every faith that you can take control and start feeling better.

I can definitely relate to you on some level — I've always been someone whose natural instinct is to turn to food when stressed or nervous, and it's really hard to change your habits.

You can do it though. 

Speaking from personal experience, I know that through a lot of self-reflection, it's possible to develop a healthier relationship with food and stop overeating because of how you feel.

Your mental and physical health go hand in hand

As a society, we've typically placed more emphasis on staying healthy physically rather than mentally, but the reality is that the two are extremely connected and equally important.

"We are living in unprecedented times at the moment and many of us are feeling both lonely and anxious," registered dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine told Insider.

"Many of us are also using food as a coping tool which is neither right nor wrong — what we don't want though is the foods that you are having to make you feel worse."

A post shared by Nic Ludlam-Raine UK Dietitian (@nicsnutrition)

 

Ludlam-Raine recommends the website NHS One You to help you address your feelings and find an alternative coping strategy.

"They have whole sections on managing anxiety and low mood as well as sleep, which will give you something to focus on," she said.

And then it's a case of eating to make yourself feel genuinely better, not worse.

"If you're not taking care of your mental health, you're going to have a hard time prioritizing your physical health," Alix Turoff, registered dietitian and nutrition consultant, told Insider.

"That said, if you do feel better about how you're eating, you'll notice that your mood tends to improve as well. The hardest part is starting. The motivation to jump back in to your healthy habits might not be that strong right away and that's normal!"

Start small to kick off an upward spiral

Making a change can be daunting, so it's really important you start small. And once you do, you'll likely want to carry on.

"What you'll find is that once you start taking action, your motivation to keep going actually picks up," said Turoff.

"If you're telling yourself that you want to make a change but when it comes time to do it, you find yourself not wanting to, you might be putting too much pressure on yourself to make things perfect."

A post shared by Alix Turoff MS, RD, CPT (@alixturoff_rd)

 

Ludlam-Raine agrees that it's paramount not to put too much pressure on your self to 'eat healthily,' adding that it's important to re-evaluate what this actually means.

"Many of us like simplicity and will mark foods as 'good' and 'bad,' when in reality there's no such a thing," she said

"All foods can feature as a part of a balanced diet. And yes, that includes biscuits, sweets, donuts, and chocolate, as it's the frequency and portion size of these foods that matters most (not the food itself!).

"Try not to ban the foods that you love from your diet as you will just end up craving them more."

Turoff suggests focusing on one or two healthy habits that you can improve to start with.

"Maybe it's starting the day with a healthy breakfast or getting in a 30 minute home workout," she said.

"Maybe you can focus on increasing your water intake throughout the day or planning your meals. You don't have to do it all at once!"

Be mindful of your habits

In order to change your habits, you'll need to be more mindful of what they are — reflecting and becoming more self-aware of what my tendencies are has been hugely eye-opening and helpful for me.

"Start to look at the patterns around when you're overeating or eating for comfort," Turoff recommended.

She suggests asking yourselves questions like: "Are you eating consistently throughout the day or are you skipping meals? Are you restricting certain macronutrients such as carbs or fat? When do the cravings start? Is there a pattern to them (for example, you're fine all day but after dinner you struggle).

"If you can understand the patterns of behavior, you'll be better able to put a strategy in place to change it."

A post shared by Alix Turoff MS, RD, CPT (@alixturoff_rd)

 

Similarly, it will help to sit down and think about what your goals are, and why.

"If your goal is weight loss, why do you want to lose weight? What will change about your life if that happens?" Turoff asked.

"If you want to eat healthier, what will that do? How will you feel if you follow through? Do you truly believe you can get to your goal or are you telling yourself it's never going to happen for you? Focus on creating habits!"

If you feel strong in your mindset, it will make you more likely to maintain healthier habits.

Don't deprive yourself

On a practical level, you've got to make sure you're fueling your body adequately. 

Ludlam-Raine explained that this means eating at least three meals a day with a snack in between them if you get hungry (such as nuts and dried fruit, carrots and hummus, cheese and an apple, fruit and yogurt, or even a small chocolate bar), and staying hydrated,

"Try to make meals that you enjoy and find comforting too (and make sure to cook more than you need so you can have it as leftovers the next day)," she advised.

Eating food you enjoy is the only way you'll stick to a healthy diet. If you don't like kale, don't eat it! There are plenty of other foods you can use to get all the same nutritional benefits.

𝐂𝐀𝐑𝐑𝐎𝐓 𝐂𝐀𝐊𝐄 𝐄𝐍𝐄𝐑𝐆𝐘 𝐁𝐈𝐓𝐄𝐒⁣ 🥕⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 🙌🏻 These tasty carrot cake bites are not only full of flavour but are nutritious too as they contain vitamin A, fibre and ⁣heart healthy unsaturated fats from the nuts!⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 🏃🏻‍♀️ Perfect for a mid-morning or afternoon pick-me-up, the combination of macro-nutrients will help to slow the release of carbohydrates from the dates, keeping your energy levels more stable until your next meal.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘺 𝘧𝘢𝘷𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘦 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘵𝘩𝘺 𝘴𝘯𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘦𝘴 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘮𝘺 𝘣𝘭𝘰𝘨! 𝘓𝘦𝘵 𝘮𝘦 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘪𝘧 𝘺𝘰𝘶’𝘷𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘣𝘦𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘳 𝘪𝘧 𝘮𝘢𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘴𝘵 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦! 🧡⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 𝐈𝐍𝐆𝐑𝐄𝐃𝐈𝐄𝐍𝐓𝐒 👩🏻‍🍳⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ ✔️ 9-10 Medjool dates (pitted)⁣⁣ ✔️ 70g walnuts/pistachios⁣⁣ ✔️ 70g ground flaxseeds/almonds⁣⁣ ✔️ 2 grated carrots⁣⁣ ✔️ 1 tsp cinnamon⁣⁣ ✔️ 1/2 tsp ginger⁣⁣ ✔️ 1/2 tsp mixed spice (optional)⁣⁣ ✔️ 1 pinch of nutmeg (optional)⁣⁣ ✔️ 1 handful of desiccated coconut to coat (optional)⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 𝐌𝐄𝐓𝐇𝐎𝐃 🥣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 1️⃣ Place the dates, walnuts, ground flaxseeds, carrots & spices into a food processor and blitz until combined..⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 2️⃣ Scoop out small handfuls of the mixture & roll it into 14-16 balls, placing them on a plate.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 3️⃣ Optional step: place a handful of dessicated coconut into a bowl and individually roll the balls in the coconut to coat (trust me, this step makes them taste amazing!⁣)⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 4️⃣ Pop them in the fridge or freezer for 15 minutes before enjoying! Keep them chilled between eating.⁣⁣ ⁣ 💾 Don’t forget to save this recipe too!⁣ ⁣⁣ #healthysnacking #dietitiansofinstagram #nutrition #energybites #fibre #homemade

A post shared by Nic Ludlam-Raine UK Dietitian (@nicsnutrition) on May 13, 2020 at 11:18pm PDT

 

"All meals can be made more nutritious by simply serving them alongside a salad or a couple of different vegetables — focus on what you should be adding to your diet, rather than taking away," said Ludlam-Raine.

"Make sure to keep your fridge and cupboards stocked with whole foods and keep your higher sugar foods in a slightly less convenient place (not near the kettle) — make sure you eat these foods mindfully, rather than out of habit or boredom.

"I find dividing my list up into four different sections (must, should, could, and want) to help when boredom strikes as I head straight to the 'want' section."

Turoff advises planning out your meals and snacks the day before — while you may want to eat more intuitively further down the line, having a plan can help form new habits at the start.

"Try to plan out your meals the day before so you have a plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between (try an afternoon snack and an after dinner snack)," she said.

"If you plan your snacks in, you'll feel less guilt around eating them and you're less likely to spiral into the 'all or nothing' mindset."

Keep active and stay connected

It's no secret that exercise is a huge mood-booster, and I always find that when I'm keeping active, it makes me want to make healthier food choices too somehow.

It's awesome to hear that you've always been an active person, so make sure you don't let that priority slide.

"Getting outside is paramount for our mental health and it really can do wonders to our mood too," said Ludlam-Raine.

And although it's hard to see loved ones right now, there are lots of ways we can stay in touch with friends and family, so do make the most of the technology we have at our fingertips.

"Are you also speaking to friends and family regularly?" asked Ludlam-Raine.

"Staying connected with loved ones gives us the opportunity to talk about how we are feeling and can help put our troubles into perspective."

Be kind to yourself and celebrate your wins

Take a full picture approach — make small tweaks to look after yourself in various ways, nutrition-wise and other aspects of life, and the upwards spiral will begin.

Once you catch yourself on the verge of overeating and stop yourself, be proud of yourself and remember that feeling. It'll feel good, and you'll want to do it more. 

One thing that's worked for me in the past is writing down my "wins" at the end of the day to help me stay positive, such as leaving the final slice of pizza when I'm full or only having three cookies and not the whole bag.

Sun’s out, guns (unashamedly) out. Never feel embarrassed to show off your gains. Be proud. To quote @laurabiceps: Feelin’ MASSIF. 💪🏻

A post shared by Rachel Hosie (@rachel_hosie) on May 20, 2020 at 9:15am PDT

 

But know that changing our habits doesn't happen overnight and progress isn't linear.

Once you start making healthier decisions, there will still be times where you "mess up." Only you haven't messed up. It's all part of the process and the journey.

An expression that's really helped me is: "I don't fail. I either succeed, or I learn." Every time you overeat despite not wanting to, it's an opportunity to reflect and learn.

You'll get there.

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As Insider's senior lifestyle reporter and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is fully immersed in the wellness scene and is here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you're struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world's most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she's always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at [email protected] or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

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