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Stress-eating for comfort in a time of anxiety? Here’s how experts say you should deal.

The coronavirus pandemic has all of us eating at home more. The Quarantine Cooking Show shows how to get the most deliciousness from your stocked pantry. (Video: The Washington Post)
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You’re mostly stuck inside, your children are home from school, and the coronavirus pandemic is making the future seem less certain by the day. If you’re like 27 percent of Americans, you might seek comfort in a familiar place: the refrigerator.

Food can be one of the easiest and most immediate ways to make ourselves feel better in stressful times. While enjoying our sustenance is a good thing, experts say emotionally eating lots of food with little nutrition can weaken our immune systems and worsen our moods at a time when protecting our bodies and staying positive is particularly important.

“If we want to be able to feel better, given the situation that we’re in, we have to think about how we want to fuel our body in ways that we can stay more at ease,” said Eva Selhub, a physician with expertise in stress, resilience and mind-body medicine.

Why do my eating habits matter right now?

In addition to often causing unhelpful feelings of guilt and shame, Selhub said eating highly processed foods and snacks with a lot of sugar can cause bodily inflammation that increases fatigue, anxiety and depression. Various pathways connect our stomachs to our brains, she said, so putting nutritious foods into our system helps to control our moods.

How can I tell if I’m eating because of emotion and not because of hunger?

Eating as a result of stress tends to be an automatic instinct, like putting your hand into a bag of potato chips without thinking about it, said Deanna Minich, a nutritionist with the American Nutrition Association. Physical hunger lasts longer and is more receptive to a variety of foods, rather than just foods with little nutrition.

How can I prevent or limit emotional eating in this uncertain time?

Although food makes us feel better by releasing dopamine and serotonin in our brains, Selhub said the effect wears off quickly. To stop emotional eating, she suggested doing a gut-check before you reach for a snack: “Am I about to eat because I’m physically hungry, or because I feel stressed or sad?”

If the answer is the latter, Selhub said you should consider turning to other sources of comfort: breathing exercises, movement, spirituality, social interactions, hobbies or time in nature, among others. Stick to your normal eating schedule of two or three meals a day, even if your daily routine has changed, she said.

“Whether you’re alone or with other people, make it a ritual of nurturing — that you’re nurturing yourself, that you’re fueling yourself,” Selhub said.

For extra help if you want to stay on track with trying to get in shape or lose weight, she suggested finding or creating an online support group.

What if anxiety has the opposite effect on me and I struggle to eat enough?

Although many people eat extra when they feel anxious, you may have trouble eating at all. Stress can trigger in your body an elevated physiological state as if you were facing an immediate danger, like early humans may have felt when being chased by a lion, Selhub said.

To digest food properly, we need a relaxed digestive system, Minich said. Warm teas can help your body loosen up, while protein shakes and electrolyte packets provide energy.

At the very least, Minich said you should drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. To return to regular eating patterns, though, she said it’s important to address the underlying stress, like by physically moving or doing a simple meditation.

What should I be trying to eat during this public-health crisis?

Making good food choices starts when you’re scanning the — hopefully still stocked — grocery-store shelves and deciding what to take home, Minich said. To the extent that you can buy fresh, colorful foods, you should, she said.

Absent the option of purchasing fresh produce and meat, Minich said frozen almost always beats canned when it comes to nutrition. Frozen food is preserved in close to its original state and usually has little interaction with the plastic it’s stored in, she said, whereas canned food touches its metal container and the plasticizer used to seal it. Canned food is also usually stored in a high-salt or high-sugar solution.

Minich also suggested using spices to reduce stress-inflicted inflammation and eating foods with vitamin C to strengthen your immune system. Now is a good time to share recipes with friends and family, she said, and to make sure you’re also paying attention to other aspects of your health, such as moving your body and getting enough sleep.

Ultimately, Minich said eating well heightens our sense of well-being, increases our curiosity and makes us happier.

“And I think this is the time that we need more well-being and happiness,” she said.