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How COVID Changed Our Eating

May 3, 2022

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The Meadows

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By Beau Black

We all felt the effects of COVID and the related shutdowns of everything from offices to restaurants to gyms; it seems at times that those far-reaching effects touched every area of our lives, including our eating habits. For some, that meant an upgrade: time to focus on eating healthier, cooking more, and eating out less. For others, the stresses of the last two-plus years played out in new, unhealthy pandemic eating habits.

What Exactly Changed?

Though the pandemic has meant eating at home more, at least at first, NPR reports that for other Americans, COVID negatively impacted their nutrition. “A lot of us are stress eating, snacking. We’re sitting in front of our computers. We’re maybe more sedentary than we’re used to being,” says Weekend Edition Sunday host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

That’s impacting kids as well, reports US News. The University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital surveyed over 2,000 parents. Among the findings: 17% said their children ate fast food at least twice a week; the survey noted that of those parents, 43% did so because of their schedules, while 22% cited stress. The researcher behind the study, Dr. Gary Freed, stressed the importance of helping parents make healthier choices about their children’s diets without blaming them. US News also saw kids mirroring the changes of their parents by eating in front of the TV, computer screen, or video game.

Eating for reasons other than hunger can be termed “disordered eating,” according to  MedicalNewsToday.com. They report some of the symptoms of disordered eating include:

While disordered eating may lead into an eating disorder, it does not quite meet the criteria for one. However, it is often considered pre-clinical eating disorder behavior. According to MedicalNewsToday.com’s Dr. Jillian Lampert, additional symptoms or behaviors include overuse of diet medications or supplements and becoming fixated on food or exercise.

Snacking More, Drinking More

Nutritionist, bestselling author, and Meadows Senior Fellow Kristin Kirkpatrick says she’s seen the same kinds of changes among her patients: “People are snacking more, and people are drinking more.”

People were home a lot more, and so they were around food a lot more.
-Meadows Senior Fellow Kristin Kirkpatrick

When having conversations with patients during COVID, she says a lot of them were saying, “Well, I’m snacking more because I’m more stressed. I have the news on all the time, and I’m just stressed about the pandemic.” Kirkpatrick adds that she noticed people eating more “hyper-palatable” foods like chips and other snacks that aren’t exactly nutrient-rich.

“People were home a lot more, and so they were around food a lot more,” says Kirkpatrick, who also saw an uptick in drinking. You may have consumed a glass of wine while making dinner, and another while eating it. More calories to burn plus fewer outlets to burn them off, with gyms closed in many parts of the country, equaled trouble for many of us. 

She says that the first step in transitioning back to pre-COVID eating patterns is to acknowledge what happened and dig into why: People on bad news overload, cut off from much of their normal life and normal support systems, were essentially “medicating” their emotions through food.

How Do We Eat Better Post-COVID?

So, how can we transform our eating habits to be healthier, but still satisfying, after overconsuming so much less-nutritious foods during COVID? It’s a big ask, Kirkpatrick says, to expect someone to swap potato chips for carrots. But roasted chickpeas could give you the crunch and saltiness of chips, just in a healthier delivery system. A nutrient-dense diet means lean proteins, leafy greens, lentils, whole grains, and berries.

People on bad news overload, cut off from much of their normal life and normal support systems, were essentially “medicating” their emotions through food.

Kristin Kirkpatrick stresses that health should be our goal, not simply weight loss. She says, “Our goals tend not to stick,” if they are simply appearance-related or temporary (wanting to fit into a particular dress or pair of jeans, or look good for a beach trip). To help her patients continue moving forward, she encourages them to focus on the health aspects of weight loss — such as feeling better or having more physical endurance  — versus appearance-driven ones.

It’s also important to acknowledge the connection between nutrition and addiction recovery. Nutrition often suffers when we are in the depths of addiction; healthy eating can be an important restorative in the process of detoxing and establishing new and improved habits across multiple areas of our lives.

As the pandemic and its restrictions begin to fade, it’s time for many of us to focus on improving not just our eating habits. COVID may have derailed many of us with eating and other health-related choices, but that doesn’t have to be permanent. If you find yourself struggling a bit too much to get back on track, let our team at The Meadows help. Our caring staff and clinicians can develop a specialized treatment plan just for you to address any mood disorders, substance use, or disordered eating that escalated during COVID. Reach out today.