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What's the best advice for losing my COVID-19 pounds?

Digging into the emotional roots of comfort eating is key to shedding pounds gained during the COVID-19 crisis, a dietitian and author says.

Addressing emotional roots of comfort eating key to losing weight gained during the pandemic

A dietitian who is an expert at addressing the emotional roots of overeating recommends using measurements to track progress, rather than frequently stepping on a scale. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)

Digging into the emotional roots of comfort eating is key to shedding pounds gained during the COVID-19 crisis, a dietitian and author says.

For months, we've been largely stuck at home absorbing a dizzying number of distressing headlines and public health updates. In response, a lot of us have learned to bake sourdough bread and stuff ourselves with comfort food. When we're not on a Zoom call, we're wandering into the kitchen for a snack.

After all, the fridge is right there.

One poll conducted by Research Co. found that three in 10 Canadians reported gaining weight during the pandemic. The researchers conducted an online study from June 1 to June 3, among 1,000 adults in Canada. (For comparison purposes, the margin of error for a probability-based sample of this size would be 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

"A lot of people are snacking heavily during the Covid-19 crisis, and it doesn't have anything to do with food in and of itself," said dietitian Bridgett Wilder. In uncertain times we reach for comfort in the form of something that's sweet, salty or rich in carbohydrates, Wilder told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC podcast The Dose.

The Milwaukee resident knows first hand what it's like to confront the thorny emotional aspects of overeating. She was once a yo-yo dieter who eventually lost 165 pounds and has mostly kept it off.

Pictured in these before and after photos, Bridgett Wilder is a dietitian and author who has lost 165 pounds. (Submitted by Bridgett Wilder)

Her weight gain came first while grieving the loss of her six-year-old daughter to Leukodystrophy, a rare genetic disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and nerves. Then, three years later, her husband died of congestive heart failure, leaving her, a 35-year-old widow, to raise their remaining nine children on her own.

Getting away from eating our fears

"During the time of my grief and taking care of my sick loved ones, I couldn't focus on my health, nutritional work, because emotionally I was all over the place," said Wilder, who now runs Perseverance Health and Wellness Coaching, and also consults with the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society. 

"So it's easy for me to connect with my clients because I understand what happens to your body when we're in stress mode, when it comes to our nutritional choices."

When she realized she was "eating her fears," Wilder was able to make the important connection between what was going on with her mental and emotional health, and how it impacted her food choices.

"When things were going on in my life, I didn't deal with the issue; I ate the issue," said Wilder.

Wilder says its key to address the emotional roots of overeating if you wish to lose pounds added while comfort eating. (submitted by Bridgett Wilder)

She recommends that people who are looking to shed extra pounds give just as much weight to making "a psychological plan" as they do to charting out their meals. To get at the core issues that drive us to comfort eating, it can help to write a journal that notes how you're feeling on a given day and compares that to your food choices, she said.

A psychological plan for better eating also involves identifying stressors in your life, as well as things that help you deal with stress positively, Wilder said. Those could include things like getting out for a brisk walk to clear your head, or connecting with a friend, instead of reaching for a bag of potato chips.

"Emotional eating triggers still happen. I just modify how I deal with it," said Wilder. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, for example, she saw the potential for stress stemming from, among other things, uncertainty about how social distancing would impact her business. She got proactive preparing healthy, portion-controlled snacks.

Wilder said paying attention to portion size is the next most important thing after journalling to get at the emotional side.

Online tools and food tracking apps can help you quickly identify a healthy portion size for your goals.

Use the bathroom scale in moderation

Wilder said she's not a proponent of frequently weighing yourself while trying to shed pounds. That's because the numbers on a scale might not reflect the transition of fat to muscle that happens when you're making better food choices and exercising more.

She suggests using measurements instead, and keeping an old pair of pants on hand that you can try on to to track your progress.

Maureen Turner didn't think she was eating emotionally by indulging her sweet tooth during COVID-19 — she was just trying to help out a local business.

"It started with supporting a local cafe. I would get my latte and a brownie," said Turner, who lives in Georgetown, Ontario. "Then every day I wanted a brownie. It got to the point that they knew when I called to place my order that I wanted a brownie."

"I'm weaning myself. One brownie a week now."

Gyms and fitness centres were required to close in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Vicky Sanderson of Toronto made some changes to her early pandemic habits in order to ward off possible weight gain and feel good during a stressful time.

"I started off heavily into comfort eating but then had some kind of awakening, realizing that it was not actually making me feel better," said Sanderson. "I started Weight Watchers, got a Fitbit and started doing exercise and yoga YouTube videos."

"I also signed up for a weekly delivery of local produce from FoodShare, which has upped my veggie game." As a result, she said she hasn't felt as fit and healthy in years.

Loren Chiu said the pandemic has been disruptive to workout routines, but that it also presents an opportunity to think about other simple ways to get exercise, such as through long walks, family bike rides and doing yard work. (Submitted by Loren Chiu)

Loren Chiu, an associate professor in the University of Alberta's faculty of kinesiology, sport and recreation, said the pandemic does bring an opportunity to form new healthy habits.

He said a lot of people have found their exercise routines disrupted once their normal schedules went out the window.

"A lot of people plan their workout around their schedules. So they might go after work or before work," said Chiu, who has a PhD in biokinesiology.

Plus, with gyms closed, that meant coming up with new ways of working out.

He said he's been happy to see more people out on walks and family bike rides.

"There's a common excuse, 'I don't have time,'" said Chiu. "[Now] people have that time because if you're working from home … instead of driving, you take a 30-minute walk. Because you're not running around taking the kids to activities, you go for a bike ride or a walk in the park."

In this May 14, 2020, file photo, a woman cleans weights after using them at Metroflex Gym, in Oceanside, Calif. Gyms have started to reopen in some parts of Canada, but with new measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. (AP)

He recommends that people think about these more organic forms of exercise instead of gym or other appointment-based activities during this time.

"We tend to neglect things such as doing yard work — cleaning the gutters, this is all physical activity. We hire people to do these things for us because we don't have time. But now that we do have time, we can do that instead." 

Wilder told Dr. Brian Goldman she wants to encourage everyone to  remember their worth and prioritize their wellness while we're still coping with COVID-19.

"I know some of you may have a lot going on right now. I'm saying choose yourself." 

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Jeff Goodes and Sujata Berry.



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