Most everyone has heard of the “Freshman 15” – the typical 15 pounds college freshmen tend to gain during their first year away from home. Since the stay at home order was announced in March it seems a new concern is the “COVID 19,” the 19 pounds many people may have gained while working from home or being unemployed. We talked to NCH Behavioral Health Advanced Practice Nurse, Cayce McConnell, PMHNP-BC about emotional eating.
McConnell says if you are gaining weight during the stay at home order you might be able to blame your endogenous cortisol levels, which rise during times of stress. During these stressful times, people may be more prone to overeat and seek out foods for comfort in an effort to reduce their stress.
Most people agree they don’t stop eating when they are no longer hungry. According to McConnell, “There is actually a circuit in the brain that impacts whether we overeat or not. The area is called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis part of the brain; this area also strongly correlates to behavior and emotional response, and there may be some connection to the pleasure of eating and continued eating even when we are not hungry.”
Of course, this is a general description, and no two people are exactly the same. For instance, we know some people find comfort in food more so than others. McConnell explains, “Neurotransmitters such as dopamine play a role in the reward center of the brain that can be lit up simply by eating enjoyable food. This mechanism is also thought to provide us with feel-good sensations, thus providing us with a sense of contentedness and comfort. Sometimes this center becomes too responsive and unhealthy habits such as food addiction may occur.”
But there are ways to help break the bad eating habits that could lead to food addiction. One helpful technique is to employ mindfulness, becoming aware and present in each moment that takes place around the consumption of food.
Consciously selecting healthy foods near bedtime can impact our quality of sleep in a positive way that leads to overall better health. Avoiding high fat, high sugar content snacks may reduce the risk of dypepsias (also known as indigestion), gastric reflex and brain overstimulation that results in poor sleep quality.
Taking time to become attuned to the foods we choose, how we prepare them, enjoying the entire process of eating—from the colors to smells to touch to taste—and slowing down in the consumption of our foods can help us become aware of our relationship with food. These steps can help minimize overeating and other bad habits.
Our Behavioral Health programs strive to encompass treatment for the whole health of the patient, and sometimes this means addressing weight, perception of the body and ways to minimize risk of weight gain for people on particular medications or for other health-related reasons. Our Behavioral Health team includes a dietitian who individualizes treatment to ensure it is sustainable and beneficial for each patient.
Learn more about Behavioral Health at NCH.