I’m not one to look back over my shoulder very often. It’s not necessarily a good thing all the time, but I tend to stay focused forward – always searching for what is over the horizon. Which means I don’t often dwell upon the way things used to be or lament the good old days. However, every once in a while, it’s nice to sit back, look back, and find some perspective. This past year of the pandemic has been crazy. For many people, it has been a disaster – emotionally, physically, financially, and/or mentally. For some people, it hasn’t been too bad. As a population, we are all over the map in terms of perspective and experience. Which explains so much of the controversy and division regarding the best path forward. The social scientists of the future and going to have a heyday studying the effects of this pandemic on just about every variable and industry that exists.
I am not a social scientist. However, I do have a boatload of experience analyzing and classifying people’s behavior as it applies to weight and weight loss – both pre- and intra-pandemic. In fact, I ask all of my new patients what they consider to be barriers to successful weight loss – i.e., what drives them to make choices that don’t align with the person they want to be. In every chart note with our return patients, my staff and I document these barriers. These are things like social celebrations, cravings, physical hunger, traveling, emotional eating, etc. Like I tell my patients, you can’t fix something until you understand it!
Pre-pandemic, these barriers were pretty evenly distributed. People struggled with a variety of issues. However, since this pandemic began, it’s amazing how differently the categories look. Obviously, traveling has decreased – no surprise there. The frequency of social eating has decreased overall – but the significance attached to it has increased. This is important. In the past, we gathered at sporting events and concerts. We shopped and swam and got together to let out kids play while we talked. Food was often a big focus of the togetherness (and not usually healthy food) but it was one of a few things that connected us.. As we collectively start resuming our social interactions, if we continue to avoid concerts and parks and movie theaters, food is going to become THE THING that ties us together. Unless we are deliberate about it, this could lead to significant weight gain.
Obviously, the category that has increased the most since COVID-19 reared it’s ugly head is emotional eating. Specifically, eating our negative emotions. As a population, we have spent the past year locked up in our little bubbles – feeling fear and sadness and anxiety and uncertainty. And to deal with those emotions, we have eaten more. Most people (not just people with excess weight) use food as therapy. Food (usually sugar or highly processed refined carbohydrates) provides a quick fix to soothe our negative emotions. It’s easily available and socially acceptable. Even though the fix only lasts a few minutes – we do it anyway.
Many of us have justified our behaviors this past year – claiming we are eating these things in order to support local restaurants or to spend time with our kids in the kitchen. We have justified the lack of fresh vegetables and meats by claiming that we aren’t comfortable going to the grocery store often. We have allowed dessert after every meal because it’s better than alcohol. Sound familiar? Although I can see the rationale in all of these things (and I’ve said them myself from time to time), they aren’t truths.
After all, we could support local restaurants by eating healthy menu items – or eat healthy food at home on a budget and simply send them they money we saved by eating at home. We could spend time in the kitchen with our kids teaching them how to make stir-fry rather than cookies. For those people that have been too nervous to go into a grocery store and buy produce, there are a million ways to get groceries without going in – for free. And for people that claim they don’t trust someone else to pick out their produce (I hear this a lot), I always ask them how they justify eating in a restaurant, knowing that someone picked everything out there. The claim that dessert is better than alcohol is a tricky one (true from a standpoint of addiction and depression and abuse) – but since alcohol consumption has definitely gone up along with dessert consumption in the past year, for many of us, it’s not been an “either/or” issue but an “and” issue.
As we emerge from our homes and resume some sort of hybrid normalcy, we need to take stock of our new habits and routines and figure out how to adapt them to our new normal – without significant health consequences. The first step in this process is simply awareness. Give yourself 30 minutes one day to journal what you are doing now that you didn’t used to do. Then make a star next to the positive behaviors you want to continue and an X next to the ones that probably won’t make your life easier in the long run.
Remember, you can’t fix something until you understand it.
If you need me, you know where to find me
Courtney Younglove, M.D.