Step away from the cookie jar: How to stop stress eating in lockdown

Falafel and vegies are healthy snacks to have on hand for when stress eating rears its ugly head.
Falafel and vegies are healthy snacks to have on hand for when stress eating rears its ugly head. Photo: William Meppem

With many of us now dealing with the reality of spending weeks in lockdown, we can be forgiven for self-soothing a little with food and drink – whatever gets you through right?

The downside though is that six weeks of food-based self-soothing will inevitably lead to increases on the scales, which probably won't help any of us feel better.

So if you have already noticed that stress eating has reared its ugly head, here are some proven psychological tricks and tools to get you through the next few weeks, minus a few extra kilos.

Out of sight, out of mind

One of the simplest yet most powerful ways you can control what you eat is to keep food – especially tempting snacks – out of sight. Studies have shown we eat double the volume of treats such as biscuits and confectionery when we have easy access to them. This means that keeping food in fridges and cupboards as opposed to on bench tops, and tuck especially tempting foods away, so even when you open the fridge or the pantry, the easy to grab snacks are not in eye sight. This simple strategy will go a long way in preventing the mindless munching on extra foods we find ourselves doing when we are tired, bored and stressed.

Attica owner-chef Ben Shewry's lunch salad recipe with cucumber, soft-boiled egg and walnuts. Recipe for Good Food chefs' diets story February 2018. Please credit Ben Shewry.

Ben Shewry's lunch salad is a light option that will fill you up. Photo: Ben Shewry

Buy only what you need

When there's rumour of food shortages and limited access to shops, or you are trying to limit the time you spend in supermarkets it can be easy to fall into the trap of stockpiling. The issue with this is that we will basically eat whatever foods we have available. This means if you bought four packets of chocolate biscuits because they were half price, you'll most likely eat them in record time. For this reason, buying only what you need for the week, especially when it comes to high-energy snack foods, will go a long way to keeping your stress eating controlled. And if you're craving something in particular, rather than keeping a supply at home, you can most likely have it delivered, and that delay in itself is something that can help to limit mindless eating.

Avocado shichimi.

Adam Liaw's avocado shichimi is a healthy indulgence. Photo: William Meppem

Limit your food rewards

The way your start your lockdown food journey is the way you will finish it. This means if you let yourself overeat under the excuse of "stress", you will continue to overeat for the next six weeks. On the other hand, if you use this time to take control of your food, plan healthy, light meals and snacks each day and give yourself permission to indulge once a day with your reward of choice – such as wine or cheese or chocolate or ice-cream – you will have something to look forward to each day and keep your energy intake under control.

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Andrew McConnell's cucumbers, yoghurt and mint.

Planning a few healthy snacks is better than stockpiling four packets of biscuits. Photo: William Meppem

Keep the low-energy options handy

Like all behaviours, stress eating is learnt over time and if you are in the habit of reaching for a snack whenever you feel anxious, this will continue until you make a conscious effort to break the pattern. If having something to munch on is your current default when you are feeling overwhelmed, keep a supply of low energy, crunchy snacks on hand. Veg sticks, popcorn, mints, gum, berries or herbal tea are all good options.

Identify other rewards that bring you joy

When times are tough, rewarding ourselves with food treats is a cheap and easy thing to do. The downside of this is that when that stress is likely to continue for several weeks, food rewards quickly become extra kilojoules. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a chocolate or glass of wine (or two) to get you through the long days at home but what's even better is to identify other things that also offer you distraction, joy and a boost of positive emotions that help buffer your stress in other ways. Some ideas include calling a friend, a bubble bath, a favourite TV show or an online workout (yes, seriously) rather than relying on food rewards alone to get you through the next six weeks.

Susie Burrell is a nutritionist and dietitian.