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Maintaining Healthy Eating Habits During a Crisis

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The dramatic changes in our daily lives caused by the COVID-19 virus is likely the greatest crisis of our lifetime. Hopefully, you and your family are safe at home and can avoid harm. It would be easy to focus on all of the negativity and be glued to the news 24/7 but that would be a mistake. As someone working to lose weight or maintain your weight loss, this crisis presents a number of challenges but also several opportunities. First the challenges:

  • Many of us are either working from home or are not working, but still at home. Being home presents a bunch of food and eating challenges.
  • You may be more sedentary than usual, without your commute to work, and possibly unable to be out and about or go to the gym.
  • Being home means that the refrigerator and the kitchen are only a few feet away.
  • Your schedule is probably different. Without a regular schedule, unplanned eating and
  • more frequent trips to the kitchen may occur.
  • For those unaccustomed to working from home, it may be harder to focus on your work,
  • and possibly wandering around the house and once again, back in the kitchen.
  • The emotional toll this situation is taking on all of us is significant. If you have a
  • tendency to eat in response to anxiety or loneliness, this can be a very difficult time.

The challenges are clear. What about the opportunities?

  • Before this crisis, many people were so busy with their jobs that they did not have time to make better food choices. Too much fast food. Too much take out. Too many dinners at 10 pm. Now there may be more time to buy and prepare healthy food and eat at a healthier time.
  • Many restaurants are closed so you need to go to the supermarket where more fresh foods and healthier choices are available.
  • Learn to cook! If you have more time, you can break out some of those cookbooks you’ve been meaning to read or find simple recipes online to try.
  • While you’re in the supermarket, this could be a good time to experiment with new foods. Some of your favorites may be out of stock. This is a good time to explore different and potentially healthier alternatives to your old, less healthy favorites.
  • While you are home, you may have more time to exercise. If you are restricted from going to the gym, you can still go out for a walk or a bike ride. Even if you walk with one or two friends, it is possible to practice safe social distancing while exercising.
  • Learning to change your emotional relationship with food. It’s certainly tempting to make trips into the kitchen to manage your anxiety and other emotions, but this is a great time to learn and practice alternatives to emotional eating.

Here are some ideas to try to implement in the coming weeks:

  1. Try to create and maintain a schedule including setting aside times for meals and Snacks. If you already have an eating routine that was working, try to maintain it. If you don’t yet have a routine, examine your upcoming schedule and create one. If you are not used to working from home, it is important to structure your day to avoid working in an erratic “when I’m in the mood” manner. The latter is not very productive and will also lead you to wander around the house more often...and we know what room you’re likely to wind up visiting.
  2. If you are able to get out to the supermarket, buy healthy and smart! Make a commitment to using this time for positive change. If you continue to buy chips and Cookies, this is going to cause weight gain. However, if you make healthier food choices in the supermarket, you can use this period at home to your advantage. If you’ve been looking for an opportunity to help your family start eating healthier, this is a perfect opportunity! Many restaurants are closed, so if you stock the house with healthy choices, you’re more likely to stick to your plan. It’s probably not advisable to go to the supermarket every day as we try to keep our social distance, so try to make a list and do a weekly shopping. Think about meal prepping. What could you buy for a few breakfasts, lunches, and dinners? Make the healthiest choices you can.
  3. Experiment in the supermarket. Some of your old favorites might be unavailable. Even if they are there, check out other alternatives. Have you ever wondered if riced cauliflower was a good alternative to white rice? Now’s the time to give it a try. What about that all-natural, lower sodium and low-sugar spaghetti sauce? Maybe bring home a jar or two. We are all wired to buy what we’ve always bought. They’re probably the same items you grew up with in your parents’ home, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Use this opportunity to experiment with healthier and maybe even tastier choices.
  4. Get outside and walk or bike a few times per week if possible. Many gyms are closing down so if you have a home gym you have an advantage. However, even without a home gym there’s always the great outdoors. Walking and biking are excellent forms of exercise. It’s more important to try to build a habit of getting out there a few times per week than it is to walk a specific number of steps or burn a specific number of calories. In fact, it is possible that you make this a habit that endures long after this crisis ends.
  5. Learn to manage your emotions in ways that don’t involve going to the kitchen. It is completely understandable that you are feeling more anxious these days, but neither the current situation nor your anxiety is going to be helped by eating. Instead, use this time to learn mindfulness skills to manage your anxiety. These skills actually help reduce anxiety and don’t contribute to weight gain. Research demonstrates that learning mindfulness skills helps reduce compulsive eating. There are a number of great apps available like headspace or calm where you can get started. Similarly, if you did a quick search for “mindfulness techniques,” the internet has 100’s of free modules available. Just experiment until you find a few that work for you.
  6. Limit the amount of time you watch television and spend watching the news on your computer and phone. You know the news isn’t great, and more importantly, it can be emotionally harmful. The purpose of the news is to provide information, but many people watch news programs as a form of entertainment. However, today’s news is not at all entertaining, it’s quite upsetting. Worst of all, some news programs focus on how things can get worse. While you may need an update or two per day, you don’t need to watch any more than that. It’s very likely to upset you and may trigger emotional eating. Even if you don’t have a tendency to eat in response to anxiety and emotional upset, who wants to experience emotional upset more than necessary?! Instead, use this time to be closer to loved ones within your home or via facetime, teleconferencing or the good old telephone. If you are among loved ones or can use facetime or video conferencing to be with them “virtually,” break out those board games, color in a coloring book, create art projects or do other things that put a more positive spin on what is certainly a challenging time.

To be sure, there is nothing good about this crisis and how it is affecting our daily lives. However, it is possible to take advantage of the opportunity that being at home provides. If you make some changes in your behavior, you can use this time to stay on track with your weight loss or weight maintenance goals, and maybe even develop some new healthy habits that provide benefits that last long after this crisis is over. May you all be safe and well during this difficult time.

Warren L. Huberman, PhD. Is a Clinical Psychologist licensed in New York and New Jersey. • Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. • Affiliate Psychologist at the Langone/NYU Medical Center • Consulting Psychologist to the NYU/Langone Health Weight Management Program • Affiliate Psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Northwell-Lenox Hill Hospital. • Maintains a private practice in Clinical Psychology in Manhattan and Rockland County, NY. Author of the book 'Through Thick and Thin: The Emotional Journey of Weight Loss Surgery.' Dr. Huberman can be reached at 212- 983-6225 or at wh@warrenhuberman.com.

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Thank you! Excellent information and tips.

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Posted (edited)

Thank you for the great information especially in these trying times! :)

Edited by Coexister

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Thank you for this information and insight into the challenges one can face when in the midst of crisis.

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