Is Covid fattening?

A recent British study shows that the empty supermarket shelves at the start of the CoVid-19 epidemic were less the result of panic buying by a few egoists than the consequence of a moderate increase in provisioning by a very large number of people.

It seems we all looked ahead and sensibly decided to stock up a little, just to make sure of having enough to feed everyone at home all the time. Only 3% of shoppers systematically raided the pasta shelves.

For some people, however, having a larger supply of food available is a temptation to consume more. Some individuals are particularly vulnerable to the new Coronavirus, but others are sensitive to the proximity of food. To them, the stocks of cheese and yoghurt in the fridge, of crisps and chocolate in the cupboard sing a relentless chorus of “eat me, eat me”. Ready-to-eat foods sing loudest, but even rice and pasta have their attraction: many studies correlate the quantities of food present in the home to the quantities consumed (1).

Normally, most us cope well enough. But in lockdown, nothing is normal. Daily schedules are disrupted. Worry ambushes even the most rational. The uncertainty over the future and the impossibility of planning for it erode our patience. Some suffer from being cooped up all together, others are weighed down by loneliness. The emotional load can get very heavy. There are foods which can bring relief by giving an instant shot of pleasure. This palatability, according to the neurobiologists, activate the reward system. The colloquial equivalent is “I can’t keep my hands off the stuff”.

So, what can we do to avoid eating more than is good for us? Here are five strategies that may help (2).
(If you suspect yourself of an eating disorder, some of these can be counterproductive, and you will do best to go straight to strategy nr.5).

1° Create a protective environment
Buy raw materials to create your meals from, rather than ready-to-eat foods.
Don’t stockpile foods to which you are particularly vulnerable. If you have to buy them, get a quantity sufficient for only a day or two. Hide them as far away as possible. Think of a place like the top shelf of a cupboard, all the way at the back, behind the flower vases that you can’t get out without the stepladder. The idea is to put that temptation so far out of reach that you can’t get it (and eat it) without thinking. If you have a cellar, shed or garage, put your stores there. In a pinch, even the boot of the car will do.

2° Stay alert
Weigh yourself once a week (not more). If you put on 1-2 kg, don’t panic, you will lose them once the situation gets back to normal. If you gain more weight than that, take a good look at your behaviors:

  • Are you taking larger helpings, or extra helpings? Are you living with people who need more food than you do, and eating more to “keep them company”?
  • Are you eating (too) often? Meals and snacks are essential to the rhythm of the day, but they should not be too frequent, especially if you get no more than 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day.
  • Are you being ambushed by “healthy” foods? There is a halo of health about things like almonds, avocadoes, yoghurt, smoothies and many others, but we need to realise that they do contribute great chunks of calories, and that excess calories will always come out as weight gain. Remember to eat these things in moderate quantities.

3° Give your days a sound structure
This is especially important if you have trouble gauging how hungry you are, of when you have had enough to eat. If you have difficulties detecting your own hunger and satiety signals, you had better set yourself fixed times for eating, and take care to sit down and do nothing else while you eat, even just for a snack.

4° Food is not the only pleasure
Do enjoy your food, by all means! But do not rely only on food to relax or reward yourself. Find other things that work for you: music or a book or a movie, a bath or a nap (naughty or not), a phone call with a friend… And keep moving: walking or hiking or running in the open air (a the proper distance from others), dancing around the living-room, practicing yoga, anything to avoid immobility!

5° Ask for help
If it’s too hard, find a qualified professional dietician and ask for their help. They use conference calls during lockdown, so you can consult them anytime.
(1) This phenomenon has been shown particularly clearly in the work of Leann Birch and Barbara Rolls. In Chapter 8 of “Mindless Eating”, Brian Wansink also describes it, including its humorous side.
(2) My book “Changer de poids, c’est changer de vie ” gives details of these and other strategies, and explains the mechanisms behind weight (re)gain.

Portrait du Dr Maaike Kruseman

Dr Maaike Kruseman

Dr Maaike Kruseman has specialised in weight loss maintenance, culminating in her PhD research at Lausanne University (CH). Her other field is sports nutrition, a subject of absorbing interest to her, both professionally and in her own life.