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Changes to eating patterns during the pandemic

Last Modified: 5/13/2020

eating patterns

This post was written by Laura Oyer, PhD, HSPP, psychologist, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute.

Over the past few months, many people have found their eating patterns have been affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you scroll through almost any social media platform, people are posting about the changes in their food consumption, movement and exercise, and their feelings about these shifts. As a psychologist who works primarily with those dealing with eating disorders, it’s important to understand that these fluctuations are completely normal, especially when experiencing changes in routine, environment and emotional state. Let’s first explore what changes you might see, and then see if those changes are problematic. As you read, I encourage you to hold off on any judgment, labeling things as “good” or “bad”, and instead just notice if you have experienced any of them.

Change #1: Eating too little

Some might have noticed that they’re eating less than before the pandemic. For some, they may have experienced changes in income and have difficulty affording enough food or the variety of food they once had. Others may be afraid of not having enough food and have resorted to intentionally limiting their food intake. Some people may also have had to start cooking for themselves more than usual. But, because they either didn’t know how to cook or don’t enjoy it, they ended up eating less than they normally would. Another reason people may be eating less is that they have experienced a decrease in appetite. They simply do not feel as hungry. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but those likely connected to the pandemic include increased anxiety, depression or other stress-induced states.

Change #2: Eating when not hungry

Another change many have noticed is that they’re consuming food when they’re not hungry. As people have had to spend more time at home, they may have more access to food throughout the day versus when at work or school and have less structure around meal or snack times. Another reason people may be eating when not hungry is due to emotional reasons. For example, if someone is bored, they may find themselves turning toward food for stimulation or if they’re feeling lonely or fearful, they may use food for comfort. Others may use food to reward themselves or celebrate meeting a goal or achievement during the day.

Change #3: Over-eating / binge eating

One last change that may be happening with food consumption is over-eating or binge eating. This can occur for similar, emotional reasons, such as wanting comfort, stimulation or distraction. A lesser-known reason this happens is that a person has been restricting or eating too little during the day, and then usually toward the end of the day, they find themselves over-eating or binge eating. This happens a lot when someone tries to diet and remain in a calorie deficit during the day, but their body is so hungry at night, they end up bingeing or over-eating out of hunger.

Are my eating changes normal or a problem?

As I mentioned above, it’s very common for all of us to have experienced any or all these patterns during this pandemic. Also, it doesn’t make it a problem just because these eating changes have happened from time to time. Once our lives return to somewhat normal, our eating will as well.

What might indicate a problem, is if you notice that these patterns are consisting after our lives return to normal and your eating doesn’t follow, or these changes in eating are happening regularly and you feel you have little control to change them. Also, if you noticed these patterns of eating were happening somewhat regularly before the pandemic and they have been intensified during, this might indicate more intense disordered eating or an eating disorder. Finally, if you notice that these changes in eating are impacting your functioning (e.g., relationships, completing work, concentration, health), then it may point to more of a problem.

If you’re concerned about you or a loved ones’ eating changes or disordered eating, you can call the Parkview Helpline at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day, to request an eating disorder assessment. Remember, whether you’re eating changes are normal or a problem, I encourage you to be kind and compassionate toward yourself and your body; you both have gone through, and are going through, a lot.

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