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How To Improve Your Relationship With Food During The COVID-19 Pandemic

How To Improve Your Relationship With Food During The COVID-19 Pandemic

With the strains and stresses of COVID-19 social distancing, understanding it is more important than ever. Forming a healthy relationship with food takes conscious effort, but it is possible.

COVID-19 and healthy relationship with food

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 01, 2020: A long line outside of Whole Foods in Tribeca, New York as the store has implemented social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image By Jennifer M. Mason, Shutterstock)

COVID-19 has people around the globe dealing with an unprecedented and quite frankly utterly unimaginable scenario.

Quite frankly, I don’t even know where to start.

And I’m sure you feel the same way.

As a health professional, I certainly fear what may be lost under the avalanche of immune-boosting content is an honest discussion about how this challenging new reality may be impacting our relationship with food.

There’s just so much going on here, on top of a decrease in food accessibility for financial and logistical reasons.

Even just speaking personally for a moment, the sharp decrease in my capacity to engage in physical activity has decreased my appetite. This is obviously not ideal, because I love to eat!

My experience is just a microcosm of the issues that many of you are facing when it comes to your thoughts and feelings about food in this very challenging period.

In today’s article, I will discuss some important key messages I want you to keep in mind to ensure you retain a strong and healthy relationship with food over the uncertain weeks and months to come.

#1 You Can Still Eat Well While Spending Less Money

Grocery shopping represents, on multiple levels, the first potential point of concern in this COVID-19 age. There is obviously a financial aspect to this which will affect different people in different ways.

For some, it may mean shopping at a lower-cost supermarket than they are used to.

Although perhaps not preferable, it’s important to know that this is not something that needs to negatively impact your relationship with food.

Frozen foods, especially fish, fruits, and veggies, are equally healthy and very economical. Remember, it’s your attitude that counts.

A 2013 paper out of the Journal Of The American Academy Of Nutrition found that a positive attitude towards healthy eating was a strong determinant of overall diet quality, regardless of whether you shop a low or high cost grocery store.

#2 You Can Still Create Positive Energy Around Food

The significant social aspect of food and eating presents many people with unique challenges because the environment in which one eats plays a notable role in dictating thoughts and feelings around food.

A 2019 study out of Nutrition and Metabolic Insights found that having company over, for example, minimized negative thoughts about food.

This is obviously not an option during COVID-19 and presents unique challenges to those of you who may be spending significant amounts of time alone, which means you may also be spending more time thinking about food – and not always positively.

Here are some strategies you might consider employing if you find yourself in this position:

    1. Focus on Positive Self-Talk:
    Positive self-talk involves demonstrating a level of understanding and compassion for yourself that you might show a close friend or family member if they were in the time of need, rather than being “your own harshest critic”. These same principles apply to our interaction with, and thoughts about, food choices.
    2. Learn Something New About Food:
    Even though there are a fair number of negatives, self-isolation may allow you the opportunity to learn something new about food. Maybe it’s a new recipe, a nutrition fact or maybe you even try a food that you’ve never tried before. These types of positively oriented food goals will go a long way to reframing your mindset.
    3. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts:
    The American Psychological Association described “cognitive distortions” as faulty thoughts or beliefs, which can apply to a wide variety of categories including food.

    There are many cognitive distortions, one of the more common ones is “overgeneralization” where someone might think that because they didn’t eat perfectly one day, they then might extend that belief to thinking they did not eat well the whole week.

    It’s important to catch and challenge these distortions when you find yourself in these thought processes and take a step back to determine if they really are fair and rational assessments.

    Study says, challenging your negative thoughts, especially food guilt, is particularly important during stressful times where they may do even more damage than usual.

#3 You Can Fight Back Against Stress & Boredom

Stress and boredom are significant considerations during COVID-19 and can certainly play a role in dictating your mood.

This is important because, as we might expect, positive mood states are more strongly linked with valuing long-term health goals whereas negative mood states are more likely linked with decisions that provide immediate satisfaction.

Now we obviously cannot always be fully in control of our mood, but what we can work towards fighting stress and boredom in the best way we know-how.

Tools such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can actually serve to fend off both stress and boredom because not only are they inherently relaxing, but they are also skills within themselves which take time and effort to master.

I encourage to look further into one or all of those disciplines because the notion of mastering and excelling a task, as demonstrated in a 2005 paper out of the Cognitive And Behavioural Practice, is often a source of empowerment and can contribute to a better mood and more positive thoughts.

Learning a new skill (handstands? Knitting?) or trying a challenging new recipe and meal plan could also fall into this category.

#4 You Can Get More In Touch With Your Bodily Hunger Cues

Being at home near food all day every day can be a challenging environment to get used to.

The lines between hunger and boredom (discussed above) could become blurred, and that’s where it is important for you to be as in touch as possible with your body’s hunger and fullness cues.

This is what is known as intuitive eating.

Many of us have lost touch with these ques, as we let so many external factors dictate our food choices.

Although I can’t teach you how to eat intuitively in the scope of today’ article, I encourage you to start by reviewing the hunger scale – which will start to give you a better idea of where a more intuitive style of eating will take you.

#5 You Can Improve The Quality Of Your Diet

There is no denying the fact that your mental health is strongly linked with your food choices, with omega-3 fatty acids being among the most important nutrients to be aware of.

Also known as omega-3s, these dietary fats compromise most of your brain and are considered essential because your body cannot produce them for itself.

This at least partially explains why low omega-3 intake is associated with depression.

If you want to optimize your mental health, there is no question that dietary (or supplementary) intake of omega-3s has a big role to play.

They are found in two primary sources and it’s important that you understand what these are.

Fish – Especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines.
Seeds/Nuts – Walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and soy beans.

My hope is that, within each of these sections, you’ve taken little tidbits of knowledge that will ultimately contribute to your quality of life and mental health during this challenging time.

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Andy De Santis, RD, MPH

Andy is a registered dietitian, certified health coach, and a certified personal trainer. He holds a Master's degree in public health....

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