Carbs, cake, cookies: Dietician says comfort treats OK in stressful COVID-19 days

Many people are sitting at home all day and may be finding that the best way to mitigate any stress is to eat comfort food — but that can lead to a bit of weight gain. A registered dietician says practice self-compassion, and enjoy a treat or two, in moderation.

Stress, kids and working by kitchen creates perfect storm of snacking

Cheryl Strachan, a cardiac dietitian, speaker, and blogger explains why we crave comfort food when we are stressed and why it's OK to eat it. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

You've heard of the "freshman 15" — but what about the COVID 25?

Many people are sitting at home all day and may be finding that the best way to mitigate any stress is to eat comfort food — but that can lead to a bit of weight gain.

That's totally fair and natural given these unpredictable circumstances, according to Cheryl Strachan, a registered dietitian, speaker and blogger at Sweet Spot Nutrition.

Strachan told the Calgary Eyeopener Thursday that people are biologically wired to find eating food pleasurable.

Right now, she said, everyone needs an antidote to the unpleasant feelings in the world.

"We're surrounded by worry, grief and sadness," Strachan said.

"When we are under stress, our body releases the stress hormone, cortisol, and eating more is a natural response to that."

In that case, baking brownies and eating more carbs isn't the worst thing you can do right now.

Calgary Eyeopener listeners sent in photos of their tasty treats:

Strachan added that now is the time of the year when people are coming off weight-loss diets — meaning the craving for carbs can be more pronounced.

"Combine that with having troubles sleeping, having children and working 12 steps away from the kitchen, it makes it a perfect storm," she said.

So the dietician says don't beat yourself up if you're starting to eat more carbs than usual. In fact, there's evidence that comfort food can alleviate some of those feelings of stress and sadness.

So maybe it's OK to jump on the COVID 25 bandwagon, Strachan said — just trust yourself and do what is best for you.

If you find yourself feeling sluggish and relying on comfort food a little too much, maybe it's time to make a change in your diet.

"This is a coping strategy in the face of a global pandemic, but people may find that it's not serving them and making them feel better mentally and physically," she said.

"If people are noticing this is the only tool in their coping toolbox — and you know yourself and if you are overly relying — it's time to rein it in."

Tips on managing comfort eating

Of course, this is easier said than done. But here are some tips to ensure you're getting some comfort food but not binge eating.

  • Lots of carbohydrates are both good for you and comforting, Strachan said. Some options include sweet potatoes, oatmeal and pasta, which can be a vehicle for healthy vegetables.
  • Some non-food coping strategies include walking, stretching, meditating and virtually connecting with friends. If food is your only coping strategy, it becomes a problem.
  • Eat before you get hungry. With little structure at home, consider setting alarms for meals and snacks.

Strachan said to think about these strategies to manage stress and overeating. She also emphasized not to feel blame or shame for snacking on your favourite treats.

"If you're able to balance it with some of the other things and practise self-compassion, then it's OK. We will get through this," she said.

What are your favourite snacks that are getting you by right now? Tell us in the comments below.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener