The jeans did not lie.
Sandra McIntosh had been staying home during this pandemic, working from her kitchen table every day in comfortable stretchy pants. But when she recently put on a pair of jeans for the first time in months to go out for a drive, she had a startling realization: the pants fit rather too snugly.
“I actually had an awakening,” says Ms. McIntosh, a pastor for students and young adults in Ottawa. “I was like, ‘Uh oh.’ ”
She believes her weight gain is partly the result of how close her home workspace is to her refrigerator. A snack is now never more half a metre away. And with more time on her hands, she’s been cooking elaborate meals, such as shrimp bow-tie pasta with pesto, Thai curries, raspberry turnovers and lemon meringue pie – desserts she usually reserves for special occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.
While staying at home may be flattening the curve, many are finding it is having the opposite effect on their food consumption. The pandemic has sparked a new enthusiasm for bread-baking (not to mention bread-eating), recipe searches and the emergence of hashtags including #covideating and #covid15, a play on the term “freshman 15” used to describe the 15 pounds university students are said to gain in their first year.
Part of the reason people may be eating more while in lockdown is because they’re experiencing a loss of other sources of pleasure, primarily interacting with other people, says Peter Hall, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo. He adds many are also struggling with losing other things from which they gain positive feelings, such as employment, loved ones and a sense of security.
Meanwhile, food – especially tasty food – is a ready source of pleasure and it’s something people can control, Dr. Hall says.
“At times when we are short on external sources of pleasure, we will try to balance things out by creating our own pleasurable experiences when we can,” he says. “So naturally we might reach out to food to manufacture some missing pleasure and balance ourselves out, hedonically speaking.”
Our brains are hard-wired to prefer calorie-dense foods, Dr. Hall says. Since humans have evolved under conditions of food scarcity and unpredictability, our brains are tuned to pay attention to and seek out calorie-dense foods that give greater caloric payoff for the energy expended to find it, he says.
Eating foods we associate with pleasant memories can also be a form of “mental time travel,” bringing us back to happier, more secure times, he says. (Case in point: The recent release of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s “famous” cherry cheesecake recipe, which he says he learned as a child from his mother.)
When we’re feeling stressed, we tend to have decreased activation of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in decision making and executive function, says Cassandra Lowe, a postdoctoral fellow of the University of Western Ontario’s BrainsCAN program. This can make it harder for us to resist foods such as chips and chocolate that activate the reward pathways of our brains.
“So it’s this combination of having less control, since everyone’s stressed, as well as wanting these foods because they’re comforting in a way,” she says.
Eating indulgent foods right now is an adaptive behaviour, and as long as we don’t overdo it, it’s a good thing, Dr. Hall says, noting we could all use a little pleasure during this crisis. (He himself loves to cook. He recently made a batch of chicken wings and rejoiced when he saw Girl Guide cookies at the grocery store: “They always hit the taste and nostalgia buttons for me.")
But as the pandemic drags on, Dr. Lowe warns it could become a habit for us to turn to calorie-dense foods for comfort – and habits can be very difficult to break.
“The more you eat, the more you want them,“ she says. (Her favourite is potato chips: “If they’re in the house, I’ll eat them.")
Both she and Dr. Hall recommend going outside and getting some exercise, and not just to burn off calories. Exercise can activate the same systems in the brain that give us pleasure. Similarly, they say, anything we find enjoyable can activate the reward pathways of our brains, whether it’s watching a movie, reading a book, or connecting with friends and family members remotely.
Exercise also boosts activity in the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to exert more control over the food choices we make, Dr. Lowe says.
Getting the right amount of sleep helps our ability to make better food decisions too. When we don’t get enough sleep or we get too much of it, both of which can happen when we’re under stress, we tend to have lower executive function, she explains.
Since trying on those jeans, Ms. McIntosh has started exercising daily instead of three times a week. She is also making an effort to not buy snack foods such as gummy bears when she gets her groceries delivered.
“It’s up to me now," she says of her food consumption. “I could control it a little bit better.”
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