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  • Jeannie Lawrence MD

3 Steps To Stop Stress Eating And Manage COVID Weight Gain

If you’ve been struggling with weight gain this year, you’re not alone.

In a poll of US WebMD readers, 47% of women and 22% of men responded they have gained weight “due to COVID restrictions.” This poll was published in May 2020. It’s not hard to imagine that the numbers have likely increased from then.

A research study published this year found that several factors are putting us at risk for weight gain during the COVID 19 pandemic. Those risk factors are:

  • reduced physical activity

  • inadequate sleep

  • snacking after dinner

  • lack of dietary restraint

  • eating in response to stress

It’s interesting, though not surprising, that three of the five risk factors relate to food. Most weight loss experts will tell you that what you eat is the biggest, most important part of meeting a weight loss goal. Exercise and sleep have many benefits, but when it comes to weight loss, you can't out-exercise (or out-sleep) poor eating habits.


If you're struggling with feelings of depression, anxiety and stress during the pandemic, you're in good company too. The CDC published a report that showed Americans are experiencing significantly higher rates of mental health issues since the pandemic started. As the pandemic rages on and we continue to face a host of other social and economic issues too, it's not hard to see why mental health problems have soared to record highs.

Depression, anxiety and stress are linked to weight gain by multiple mechanisms.

One way that negative emotions can cause weight gain is by prompting us to eat as a way to soothe our uncomfortable emotions. People generally don’t enjoy sitting around feeling depressed, anxious, bored or stressed. Our brains are wired to seek relief from those uncomfortable feelings, and do so quickly.

Eating food, especially food that is highly processed like white sugar and flour, is one way many of us find relief from those uncomfortable emotions. Processed foods cause our brains to release dopamine, known as the “feel-good neurotransmitter”. Dopamine plays an important role in how we experience pleasure, so we temporarily feel better.

Unfortunately, the pleasure that we experience with unhealthy food is quickly replaced by the negative consequences of fatigue, negative emotions like guilt and shame, and of course, more weight gain. Most of us don't feel very good emotionally when we pack on excess pounds, so more negative emotions arise, starting the cycle again.


So how do we break this vicious cycle of negative emotions leading to overeating, and overeating leading to weight gain and more negative emotions?

To succeed at changing our behaviors, we have to first look at the thoughts and feelings leading to those behaviors.

I came up with a three step process you can try the next time you’re tempted to eat for emotional reasons. Using these steps consistently will improve your ability to manage negative emotions, and help you manage your weight in the process.


Most of the time, when a craving for food hits, we are quick to obey it. We immediately head to the pantry or refrigerator to find something to eat, and most often, it's not something healthy that we're in search of. Next time a craving hits, try to take a pause and notice what's going on in your mind and body. By not eating immediately every time you have an urge or craving to do so, you give yourself a moment to think, which is a crucial step in preventing mindless stress eating that leads to unwanted weight.


During your pause ask yourself: What’s going on here? Am I physically hungry? Or am I feeling emotions I don't want to feel? Some common emotions that lead to stress eating include feeling

  • anxious

  • restless

  • depressed

  • bored

  • overwhelmed

Whatever you're feeling, give that emotion a name. It's important to notice that when you're stress eating, you're not physically hungry. You're feeling an uncomfortable emotion that your brain is trying to get rid of by using food.


At this point you can choose a different course of action. If you’re physically hungry, then eat. But if you are tempted to eat for emotional reasons, you can address the emotion in a healthier way.

One option is to simply observe the way you’re feeling without any judgement about it. Notice the feeling and allow it to be there, without trying to get rid of it. Cravings and emotions will go away on their own if you give them time.

Another option is to deal with the emotion in a productive way. Try journaling about your feelings, calling a friend, going for a walk, drinking water, listening to music you enjoy, or anything else that helps you feel better without leading to negative consequences down the road.

Imagine how great you will feel when you learn how to manage negative emotions in healthy ways instead of turning to food. You will enjoy more peace and joy, and won't have to sacrifice your health and waistline, which is an added bonus we can all get behind!

You've got this!

Dr. Jeannie

P.S. Want more expert tips to get your mental health under control and up-level your overall wellness too? Be sure to SUBSCRIBE to our email list for more great content designed to help you feel your best!

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