Stress less, eat right

More people are overeating or binge eating to cope with increased stress during the pandemic

Account manager Sally Ng has had a greater workload - and a higher level of stress - since she started working from home in April.

To cope with the changes, she turned to unhealthy meals at irregular hours and snacked too much.

The 45-year-old, who is single, sometimes works as long as 16 hours a day and finds snacking a "convenient way to stay alert".

Said Ms Ng: "Eating instant noodles is an easy option when I'm busy, and sugary foods such as chocolates, sweets and biscuits give me more energy when I'm working long hours. They are easy to reach for."

Her habits have caused her to gain 4kg to 6kg recently. She stands at 1.55m and weighs 78kg.

Like Ms Ng, more people here are overeating or even binge eating to cope with increased stress during the Covid-19 pandemic. Four hospitals and clinics The Straits Times checked with all saw a rise in such cases.

Mr Henry Lew, a senior psychologist at Singapore General Hospital's department of psychology, said patients are finding it harder to manage their binge-eating tendencies during this period.

This could be due to various stressors brought about by the pandemic including increased workload, retrenchment and longer work hours at home, as well as a surge in the availability of food delivery options.

Mr Lew said stress from work and interpersonal situations can overwhelm individuals and cause negative emotions, which may lead to them binge eating to distract and soothe themselves.

"The increase in stress and anxiety may cause people to turn to food, which is the fastest and most convenient way (to destress). Furthermore, some individuals stock up on food and these are easy stimulants to trigger eating to cope with stress," he added.

Dr Cheah Ming Hann, a family physician at Jurong Polyclinic, also noted that some patients are having a more difficult time controlling their diet as they lead a sedentary lifestyle during this period.

This hormone (adrenaline) shuts down our digestion system and reduces our appetite. However, if stress persists, our bodies produce another hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol increases our appetite and our motivation as well, including the motivation to eat, which may lead to overeating behaviours. 

 MS TOH HUI MOON, a clinical psychologist at the National University Polyclinics, on how a stressful situation affects a person’s fight-or-flight response 

"This could be due to concerns about exercising outdoors, snacking more while staying at home and stress-eating due to a change in their financial situations," he said.

Promises Healthcare, a multi-disciplinary clinic with a focus on specialist care in mental health and addictions, has seen an increase in clients with a binge-eating problem since the Covid-19 outbreak.

The clinic's director of addiction services, Mr Andy Leach, said binge eating provides a temporary escape from the problem a person is facing and is a way of "trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings".

Ms Toh Hui Moon, a clinical psychologist at the National University Polyclinics, said an individual's survival mechanism known as the fight-or-flight response is triggered in a stressful situation.

The sympathetic nervous system in the body is then activated, causing a surge of epinephrine, also referred to as adrenaline.

Explained Ms Toh: "This hormone shuts down our digestion system and reduces our appetite. However, if stress persists, our bodies produce another hormone known as cortisol.

"Cortisol increases our appetite and our motivation as well, including the motivation to eat, which may lead to overeating behaviours."

Ms Holly Wolverton, an intentional eating health coach, has seen a 20 to 30 per cent increase in binge eating cases since April.

The 30-year-old Singaporean, who is in a relationship, had herself turned to binge eating when she started a job in sales four years ago.

There was a lot of pressure to perform and her lack of interest in the job made her feel trapped, she said.

She often had tension headaches and felt panicked. To feel better, she often ate large amounts of food to the point of discomfort.

She said: "I'd sometimes start eating one cookie or one chip, which would evoke something inside of me, and I'd suddenly have the urge to have 20 more servings till I felt so physically sick and very, very full.

"It distracted me from the work and stress."

Ms Wolverton said she had spent hundreds of dollars on food in one sitting. She would eat high-calorie and highly processed foods such as cookies, potato chips, muffins, doughnuts and fried chicken during her binge-eating episodes.

Apart from gaining 10kg in three months, her binge eating made her feel "trapped and depressed".

She broke out of her addiction one year ago through recovery practices such as meditation, exercise and working with a health coach.

Psychologist Ms Toh notes that stress has been shown to affect the type of food choices an individual makes. Studies have found that stress increases the intake of food that is high in fat and sugar.

"Food high in fat or sugar does reduce stress-related responses and emotions. This could lead to habitual cravings for these types of food whenever we are stressed," she said.

While a little weight gain may not sound alarming, an increased intake in fatty or sugary food can be problematic for those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

Said Dr Cheah: "It's important to maintain good dietary habits particularly for patients with diabetes, as periods of poor glycemic control could increase the risk of developing complications such as kidney failure, blindness, stroke or heart attack."


Practise mindful eating

The weight of a patient and weight-related conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol could point to binge eating.

Treatment usually consists of both psychiatric medication and psychological treatment.

Ms Lynette Goh, a principal dietitian at the National University Polyclinics, advised individuals to practise mindful eating by being aware of the types of food consumed as well as how the food is prepared.

She urged people to eat a range of fruit and vegetables that represent the different colours of the rainbow and to fill their meals with whole grains and high protein foods.

She said: "When you start filling up on whole foods, you won't have room for the high-fat or sugary tidbits."

Ms Goh added that people should avoid temptations such as working near the kitchen if working from home, or keeping snacks at the desk in the office.

She said: "It will be much harder to resist temptation if you are working where food is within reach and sight. Working in a different place, away from food, will help you win half the battle."


Overeating or binge eating? Here are ways to take control

Keeping a food and mood diary can help you understand what triggers overeating.
Keeping a food and mood diary can help you understand what triggers overeating. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

The disruption and changes to daily lives and routines - and anxiety - during the Covid-19 pandemic can bring about high levels of stress, resulting in unhealthy dietary habits and weight gain.

Here are five tips to manage binge eating or overeating due to stress.

1 Start a food and mood diary

Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for a snack, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge.

Write it down in your food and mood diary: what you ate or wanted to eat, what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating and how you felt after that.

Over time, you may see a pattern emerge and it may be easier to solve the problem when you know exactly what causes it.

2 Maintain a healthy meal schedule

You may find yourself adapting your eating pattern to accommodate your new normal if you are working from home.

Try to maintain a regular eating pattern based on your needs and preferred eating times.

If you find yourself constantly snacking, try making a schedule that includes at least two proper meals a day and following it until you feel that you have become comfortably consistent in your eating habits.

3 Avoid temptation

Having tempting foods within reach can lead to frequent snacking and overeating, even when you are not hungry.

You are more likely to overeat if you have junk food, desserts and unhealthy snacks in the house. Remove the temptation by clearing your fridge and cupboards of such food.

4 Distract yourself

Finding other ways to relieve stress such as going for a walk, reading a book, talking to a friend or watching a comedy may help.

Once you get interested in something else, the urge to binge or overeat may go away.

Research has also shown that physical activity can boost mood and reduce stress, which may reduce your chances of binge eating or overeating.

5 Seek help

Psychological treatment can help you to identify triggers such as stress for binge eating and advise you on how to manage them.

Connecting with others who are undergoing a similar experience can also be helpful. Hearing from other people who stopped bingeing can be motivating.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2020, with the headline 'Stress less, eat right'. Print Edition | Subscribe