We all have habits. Some are good, some are bad, and some we probably don’t even notice.
Brushing your teeth, swearing, smoking cigarettes, biting your nails and drinking coffee are just some of the habits we indulge daily.
It’s no secret that lockdown has had an impact on our lives and routines. As most of us are two or three weeks into lockdown, our schedules are jumbled and bad habits we once fought so long to conquer are beginning to creep back into existence. Habits such as:
- Waking up late
- Not brushing your teeth in the morning
However, there is one particular habit which may be in full swing as a result of lockdown and it has everything to do with food.
Whilst normally you’d only be eating one or two meals at home a day, this has now changed to eating all your meals at home.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board report from Kanter Worldpanels research that there will be 503 million (+38%) increase in meals eaten per week during the lockdown period.
But it isn’t just the number of meals we’re eating at home, but also, the amount we are eating.
This period of uncertainty can be leeway into negative emotions such as stress, boredom and anxiety. And the connection between emotions and eating has long been established. These emotions can often prompt binge-eating and overeating as “something to do” or a way of coping. Instead of reaching for a piece of fruit or some nuts, we tend to reach for junk food such as pizza, ice cream, chocolate and crisps (or chips to our American friends).
This is known as a bad habit, as junk food may light up the brain’s reward system but it’ll only be for a short while.
Neuroscientist Dr Amy Reichelt from the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University explains how “the brain has a reward system that hardwired us to want to engage in behaviours that we find pleasurable – like eating tasty foods.” When we eat foods we enjoy, “the reward circuits within our brains activate and release the chemical dopamine.”
But does this have to do with emotions?
As noted by Crockett et al. in the research paper Boredom Proneness And Emotion Regulation Predict Emotional Eating
The reward circuitry of the brain may mediate the relationship between stress and eating by simultaneously lessening the stress response and motivating the intake of high caloric foods.
Despite the reward factor junk food brings us, it actually has some negative effects on the brain, such as:
- Highly refined food, and foods high in sugars and fats can inflame the brain. This is known as neuroinflammation and reacts the same way as an allergic reaction.
- Eating high amounts of junk food can shrink the brain’s learning abilities. The hippocampus is the memory centre and studies suggest that diets high in junk food have been shown to reduce neuroplasticity, which is key in producing cognitive reserve.
What To Do
The first step is to understand the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Helpfulguid.org differentiates emotional hunger vs physical hunger as the following:
|Emotional Hunger||Physical Hunger|
|Emotional hunger comes on suddenly||Physical hunger comes on gradually|
|Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly||Physical hunger can wait|
|Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods||Physical hunger is open to options—lots of things sound good|
|Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied with a full stomach||Physical hunger stops when you’re full|
|Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame||Eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself|
It’s also important to identify your personal triggers and understand what situations and feelings have you reaching for the cookie jar. Once you have done this, you can look to tackling those emotions another way.
Finding other alternatives to eating such as speaking to a friend, taking a walk or meditating are helpful ways of dealing with your emotions, without indulging your bad habits.
Even though the lockdown has changed our routines and we find ourselves participating in bad habits with ferocity, it is all down to our changing emotions. The imposed lockdown brings with it feelings of anxiety, boredom and stress, and we all have our own little ways of dealing with these change. What does need to change though is how we deal with these changes. Instead of indulging in short lived moments of comfort, finding new ways of coping that are better for your brain and health, will lead to happier and healthier habits.