TEXAS – With the kitchen now just steps away from many new home offices, some are worried about the “quarantine 15,” the extra few pounds that may be gained while being stuck at home stress-eating with no access to the local gym in an effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

  • Many Americans say they’re concerned about gaining weight because of social distancing
  • Stress can cause people to seek out unhealthy foods
  • Experts offer advice for avoiding isolation weight gain

Research shows that stress alters overall food intake, resulting in either under- or overeating, which may be influenced by stressor severity. Chronic life stress seems to be associated with a greater preference for energy- and nutrient-dense foods, namely those that are high in sugar and fat.

Health experts say when we’re worried or frightened, we’re more likely to seek out sugars, fats, and carbs for a quick energy boost. These comfort foods act like a natural tranquilizer that calms us down in times of peril. Researchers say though those foods can add to stress levels, resulting in serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, as well as emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

Dr. Krystle Zuniga is a registered dietitian with UT Health Austin with suggestions for steps people can take to maintain healthy eating habits during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With losing that usual routine of getting up in the morning, exercising, getting the kids off to school— we’re losing those cues that remind us to have a meal and to eat something that’s going to nourish us through the day,” said Dr. Zuniga.

She advises people to “re-establish a routine and make time for cooking and establishing family meal time at the table, instead of emotional eating and mindless snacking throughout the day.”

Here are six additional steps people can take to avoid the “quarantine 15,” according to researchers with Psychology Today:

  1. Eat nutritious foods. Slowly digested high-fiber foods like whole grains and pasta stabilize blood sugar levels. Studies show that foods containing omega-3 fatty acids protect against heart disease and relieve mild depression. Seafood, nuts, seeds, and oils such as canola, flax, and soybean provide these nutrients.
  2. Portion meals. When you're at home, it's easy to drink from cartons, eat out of containers, or snack from bags. But if you don’t measure food, you automatically eat more, which contributes to unwanted weight gain and obesity. Instead of eating from cartons, containers, or bags, portion out snacks and meals on a plate or bowl. Studies show that using smaller plates leads to less eating.
  3. Practice mindful eating. Steer clear of gobble, gulp, and go—eating while standing, driving, on the run, or watching TV. Treat mealtime as a singular activity with value in its own right. Sitting down, eating slowly, and chewing a few times before swallowing, appreciating textures, aromas, and food flavors help you relax and enjoy the meal as well as aid in digestion.
  4. Inventory your kitchen. Scientists say that surrounding yourself with healthful foods makes it more likely that you will eat better. When you’re stressed, your appetite has a mind of its own and focuses on what’s in front of you.
  5. Exercise self-care. In addition to good nutrition, the trifecta of health is ample rest and regular exercise. Chances are the places where you’ve been working out are closed during the quarantine. Find other ways to exercise and stay fit while sequestered at home, such as jogs, walks, push-ups, or lifting weights.

If you're unsuccessful trying to stop stress eating on your own, consider these resources:

Healthy Eating – A guide to the new nutrition. (Harvard Medical School Special Health Report)

10 Tips for Mindful Eating – How mindfulness can help you fully enjoy a meal and the experience of eating—with moderation and restraint. (Harvard Health blog)

Emotional Eating – Aimed at teens, the difference between physical and emotional hunger, and how to break the cycle of emotional eating. (Teens Health)

Weight Loss: Gain Control of Emotional Eating – Tips to regain control of your eating habits. (Mayo Clinic)

Why Stress Causes People to Overeat – Tips on controlling stress eating. (Harvard Health Publishing)

Mindful Eating Meditations –Free online mindfulness meditations. (The Center for Mindful Eating)