Why we are comfort eating as a Covid-19 stress relief mechanism?

    Food, eating

    When Chocolate is the Answer

    Now that we have been living in self-isolation, and socially distancing from friends, colleagues and loved ones for almost two months, we can notice what patterns are emerging in our behaviour. Shops, gyms, restaurants, theatres, and other outlets for entertainment and distraction, have been closed to us, meaning that we have been racking our brains for things we can do at home. And, judging by the posts on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and the other usual suspects, as well as anecdotal evidence, it seems that the nation has turned en mass to cooking, baking, and of course eating. Why has food acquired this commonality in lockdown?

    There are several scholarly studies that examine the positive effects of cooking, especially cooking for others, which is viewed as an act of giving. Since we need to eat for survival, cooking to feed ourselves, our families or others has deep-rooted, primal overtones that lead to beneficial psychological effects, enhancing feelings of love, community and belonging, whether or not the ‘others’ are present in this act. It is seen as a confidence and self-esteem boosting undertaking of love and nurture.

    However, of course, what we cook needs to be eaten. This, taken together with the consumption that comes as a natural psychological consequence of stockpiling (I’ve bought it, so now I need to eat it), means that we are not only cooking more, but also eating more. And as a result we are afraid that we are putting on weight. Some are calling the weight we are expected to gain during self-isolation the Quarantine 15, i.e. the 15 pounds (that’s 6.8 kg to you and me), that we are meant to gain while we shelter indoors. Does this however, really exist or is it an urban myth? Catchy as it sounds, and despite the number of articles and opinion pieces that are being written about Quarantine 15, there is so far no science to back it up and there are many who believe that it is an exaggeration. But are we in fact eating more, and if so, why are we doing it?

    There is extensive research to show that in times of stress, comfort eating, i.e. eating not out of hunger but to relieve negative emotions and as a response to stressors such as loneliness or boredom, does counteract negative emotions and is a very common behaviour. When it is under acute or prolonged stress, the body creates cortisol, a stress hormone that increases appetite and results in cravings for food that is high in fat and sugar, but that typically has little to no nutritional significance. The value of this kind of eating is that it relieves anxiety and tension, and there are several studies that verify that this effect is not imaginary.

    Stress levels really do subside upon consumption of highly palatable, high-fat-high sugar foods, whereas high-carb foods stimulate the production of serotonin, the chemical that induces emotional wellbeing.

    When the cortisol levels are rising, chocolate, ice cream or pizza can really be the answer. These comfort foods have a sedating effect and calm us down or make us feel happy. Although this emotional eating response is more typical of women than men, it is seen across the board and is a widespread behaviour. A 2018 American study by Cummings, Mason, Puterman & Tomiyama*, puts the prevalence of comfort eating in the US as at between 15 to 46% of the population. In clinical settings, this figure is even higher; 47 to 71% in patients with obesity or eating disorders. The study found that this need for the calming hit of comforting food intensifies in situations of chronic stress, loneliness, and social isolation. Although the study in question was carried out before Coivd-19, as the authors were examining the effects of emotional eating on older people who had less social interactions or support networks, the findings translate well to the current situation.

    Along with the other stressors, such as economic, resources and health stresses, Covid-19 has set in place a number of factors that may direct us to seek comfort in food.

    The psycho-social effects of self-isolation, lack of outlets, reduced opportunity and motivation to exercise, the need to distance oneself form loved ones in order to keep them safe, the stresses of new personal and working situations, as well as the fact that many of us are working from home in close proximity to our kitchen cupboards, have increased stress and this, together with the removal of customary coping mechanisms, has led increasing numbers people to turn to potentially unhealthy methods of coping, including excess consumption of food.

    But is comfort eating in fact bad for you? As Oscar Wilde famously said: “When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy“.

    Yes, comfort food does provide comfort, and in the short term this may even be a positive outcome.

    The danger comes if this behaviour goes on long term. Comfort eating can become a cycle. Greater stress causes higher consumption of calorie-dense food and continuation of this pattern over a prolonged period of time can make this kind of eating habitual and results in a deposit of fat in the abdominal area and weight gain. These have been shown over time to lead to various health problems, including high levels of blood sugar, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure and greater risk of cardiac problems, diabetes and stoke. If unchecked, emotional eating can also spiral into an unhealthy habit that is increasingly hard to break, which could in turn lead to an eating disorder. Eating disorders such as bulimia or binge eating create dangerously unhealthy eating cycles and cause health, emotional and psychological distress to sufferers.

    Eating in response to negative emotions does not make the underlying emotions go away and, especially for sufferers of bulimia or binge eating disorder, can lead to an increase in stress, as they may experience guilt and shame following a binge eating episode.

    Eating in response to emotions can be a reaction to temporary stress or more long term, especially if rather than dealing with a momentary situation this behaviour mediates underlying negative emotions. There are a number of self-report questionnaires that purport to examine emotional eating. While the value of these as diagnostic instruments has been called into question, they may be useful if take lightly as a means of starting an internal dialogue about which emotions may or may not be triggering these eating patterns. One such instrument is the Emotional Eating Scale (EES), which is available for free on the internet. However caution and care should be exercised when using such questionnaires as they are indicative rather than hard science.

    Researchers are continually investigating alternatives to emotional eating, such as healthy stress eating.  Other substitutes such as exercise, mindfulness and various methods of relaxation and mood control are among the various other alternatives or therapies listed as replacement for comfort eating. However to date the use of food to dull stress or negative emotions remains widespread.

    Comfort eating is a complex behaviour, not related to satisfaction of hunger or lack of control. Finding occasional comfort or relief from stress in food is not necessarily negative. Comfort eating becomes problematic if it continues long term, spirals out of control or impacts health. Overcoming comfort eating means realising what the triggers are, developing healthier relationships to food and finding alternative methods for stress relief.


    Annabel Cuff is Research Support Officer at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta. 


    * Cummings, J. R., Mason, A. E., Puterman, E., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2018). Comfort eating and all-cause mortality in the US health and retirement study. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 25(4), 473-478.