Honestly, “To eat or not to eat?” is never a question. If there are snacks around me, they will get eaten. If there’s a pile of steaming hot wings sticky with Frank’s, it will be devoured, the little accompanying pot of Ranch will be slurped, carrots and celery sticks used to scrape the last dregs of liquid nectar.
Rarely have I ever related to a paragraph in a book as wholly as I did this one from Jennifer Weiner’s collection of essays, Hungry Heart:
Then there are people like me, who eat every bite and still want more, who sneak into the kitchen when the house is dark for slices of white bread slathered with margarine, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I have no off switch. Happy, sad, lonely, content — the one constant in my life is hunger. I will never be able to take food or leave it; instead, I’ll take it, and then take more.
It is day 41 of quarantine for me and I can count on one hand the number of times I didn’t finish a lockdown day munching into a Magnum ice cream. (Incidentally, I can also count those really bad two-Magnum days.) Prior to the quarantine, I was slowly reforming, learning to live without so much sugar, enjoying my daily salads of Romaine lettuce, cold chicken and alfalfa sprouts. I was adhering to a strict regime of Intermittent Fasting because it gave me laser-like precision at work, helped me stay focused. Lunch was the proverbial carrot dangling in front of my face and I would work myself to the bone in the morning for the exhilaration of cracking open my Sistema box, sprinkling over a few juicy wedges of fresh satsuma and blissfully diving into my salad. And the funny thing? I was actually fulfilled and satisfied for the first time in my life.
I’ve always hung comfortably in the neighbourhood of 20 to 21 stone, that’s roughly in the high 200s with a toe in the low 300s every now and again. I carried weight most of my life — when my friends in junior high and high school were slipping into slinky spaghetti-strap camis and cut-off Daisy Dukes, I was covering my bingo wings and cramming my fat thighs into Bermuda shorts from Old Navy’s plus size range. While they slinked into pools in bikinis and skintight one-pieces, I stayed anchored to the deck like a beached whale in an oversized shirt and shorts, helping myself to bowls of potato chips and snack cakes.
That’s always been my downfall — I’ve never been one for chocolate but I am a bona fide carb queen. If I could live anywhere in the world it’d be a bakery. A list of my favourite foods looks like a roll call for carbohydrates, all the classics appear: starchy potatoes in any form, those giant mall pretzels (unsalted with dipping cheese, please), brownies, cookies and cakes, tacos and mountains of white rice all washed down with a fizzy sugary Coke or an ice-cold glass of apple juice. Carbs, carbs, carbs.
Carbs have been my fallback during this quarantine. I’m a classic Emotional Eater, ticking off all 12 of the signs of emotional eating including being a stress eater, someone who eats whilst working. To wit: I polished off a plate of fried rice whilst writing this piece.
Let’s be honest, a quarantine is breeding grounds for stress and unchecked emotions. I’m no medical expert, but my near 33 years as an emotional eater have got to count for something, right? It makes complete sense to me that so many people are flocking to the fridge right now. Sure, there’s not really anywhere else to go but to the couch, the fridge, to the loo and back again, but that’s beside the point.
The smarties at the Cleveland Clinic explain it like this: “When you’re feeling stressed, your body sends out cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.”
Basically, at this moment in history, reaching for another packet of crisps or enjoying a daily ice cream makes sense. It’s also our brain’s fault for our inability to snap out of it and leave the snacks in the cupboard.
At the moment every newspaper and lifestyle website on the planet is doling out article after article about how to increase your activity during quarantine. Every yoga and Pilates instructor on the Gram is offering Zoom classes. Even the WHO have released a guide to the importance of exercise whilst in lockdown. The resources are there, yes. But that’s not necessarily the issue.
I frequently do yoga in my living room. You can often find my feet planted in a firm Warrior 2 as the sun rises, the Down Dog app on my phone cranking out kickass Trevor Hall tunes while I glide in and out of salutations. I, like many other overweight and obese people, aren’t strangers to a bit of exercise. Again, a lack of movement isn’t always the issue.
The issue right now is that we’re all strapped into this emotional dropzone-style carnival ride, just waiting for the floor to fall away beneath our feet. But there’s no countdown. We don’t know when we’ll be thrust down, hurtling towards the ground, praying our safety gear doesn’t fail.
That type of stress and worry must have us producing cortisol in warp speed. No wonder so many of us are wearing a hole in the floor in front of the cupboard. It’s normal right now, folks. Many of us are piling on the pounds even if we aren’t overindulging in snacks.
Remember our friend cortisol, that little switch that makes us crave sugary comfort foods at the first sign of stress? It also has another trick up its sleeve: stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area. Not only will cortisol make you crave the sugary foods, it will also help you find a nice place to store it right in your abdominals. Thanks, cortisol.
The Quaranfifteen, the knack some of us seem to have mastered for putting on weight whilst on lockdown, is real. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Science tells us that some of us are just wired in a way that makes our bodies respond to stress this way. I’m not suggesting you sit back and purposefully overindulge. I’m also not suggesting you don’t attempt any form of exercise and let the cortisol call all the shots. It’s important to maintain some level of activeness. Get out on those daily fitness breaks we’re all allowed during the lockdown. Stretch your legs. And if you can’t walk past the fridge without opening it, don’t beat yourself up. Try again tomorrow. Or the next day. Be gentle with yourself. Adding to the stress won’t help.
If your weight struggles cause you to feel depressed or suicidal, please seek help immediately. Overeaters Anonymous is a great tool for getting a grip on those bad food habits.