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Overindulging in foods that you crave may feel good in the moment, but it can leave you feeling depressed later. Getty Images
  • While under quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be feeling stressed, bored, or frustrated with your situation. These feelings can lead to binge eating processed and palatable foods.
  • Although this can temporarily make us feel better, it can have long-term effects on our physical and mental health.
  • Binge eating can create a vicious cycle of eating and depression.
  • Awareness and preparedness can help us avoid falling into this trap.

While practicing physical distancing due to COVID-19, many of us find ourselves stuck at home, stressed out by financial worries or concerns about the virus itself.

In addition, we may simply be feeling bored or frustrated by the disruption in our normal routine.

When under stress, some people may binge eat foods that are tasty but full of fats and sugar as a way of coping with those feelings.

While this may make you feel better for a while, experts say it can ultimately set you up for a cycle of depression and even more binge eating.

However, understanding why we binge eat in response to stress can help us make better choices and avoid the mood changes associated with it.

According to Jennifer Lentzke, MS, CEDRD, a registered dietitian and triathlete, stress raises the levels of a hormone in our body called cortisol.

Cortisol sets off a cascade of events that changes the chemistry of our brain, especially in relation to those chemicals that regulate mood, appetite, motivation, and sleep.

In order to offset this imbalance in hormones, our body causes us to crave high-carbohydrate or highly palatable foods in order to increase these important chemicals.

These foods often contain some combination of fat and sugar, or fat and salt, Lentzke explained, which trigger the pleasure centers of the brain, making us feel more calm, content, or even somewhat euphoric.

In the short term, this is helpful because it helps raise the level of “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin, which help us feel more calm and relaxed.

In the long run, however, it can lead to many problems, including weight gain, poor blood sugar control, and problems with sleep, behavior, and mood.

According to Dr. Michelle Pearlman, a gastroenterologist and expert in obesity medicine at the University of Miami Health System, eating highly-refined foods that are rich in sugar causes rapid changes in blood sugar, insulin, and other hormones that regulate mood and satiety.

These fluctuations affect cortisol, as well as stress-related catecholamines like epinephrine, she said, which can lead to further binge eating.

Although binge eating can make a person feel better for a while, its effects are only temporary.

This can stimulate cravings for more sugar and fat, she said, leading to even more binge eating.

“People often feel guilt after they indulge and this can further worsen one’s underlying depression and other mood disorders,” added Pearlman.

Lentzke noted that binge eating can “set off a cascade of addictive patterns” that only make the original problem worse.

People continue to use the maladaptive coping mechanism of binge eating rather than dealing with their underlying issues.

Further, the foods that people typically binge on create strong cravings.

“Our brains are very good at adapting to certain chemicals or drugs and our threshold becomes greater and greater,” she said.

This means that we need to consume more and more of the same food in order to achieve the same effect.

In addition, Lentzke said the effects can be stronger for those who are prone to depression.

Their brains are “wired toward addictive behaviors,” explained Lentzke.

The key to avoiding this cycle lies in being aware of these urges and finding healthier ways to cope with stress.

Pearlman and Lentzke had the following advice for staying on track and avoiding the binge eating/depression cycle:

  • Anticipate the times of day when you tend to get cravings. Once you know what these times are, Pearlman suggests planning an activity during those times to distract yourself. It could be something like calling a friend, watching a TV show, or working out.
  • Keep healthy meals and snacks on hand. If you have healthy options available, said Pearlman, it will reduce the temptation for you to reach for something quick, but less healthy, when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Follow a well-balanced nutrition plan that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Pearlman said this will promote a healthy gut microbiome, which, in turn, will aid in the absorption and digestion of nutrients and lead to better cellular function.
  • Avoid fad diets. Pearlman said that many popular diets — such as intermittent fasting, keto, and liquid diets — are unbalanced and restrictive, which may set us up for disordered eating.
  • Make your home your “safe place.” Pearlman suggested not keeping your trigger foods in your home so that they’re not easily accessible when cravings strike.
  • Be careful that you don’t replace one craving with another. According to Lentzke, it’s important to be aware that some coping strategies — like exercise, for example — can themselves become ‘addicting.’ It’s important to be aware of this so we don’t simply replace one craving with another.
  • Reach out for professional help, if needed. “If someone with depression is exhibiting signs of disordered eating, they should seek professional advice immediately to help gain control over their behaviors,” said Lentzke. This professional could be a counselor, psychologist, mental health specialist, or even a dietitian. “The more aggressive the treatment the better the outcome,” she added.

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