On Nutrition

It’s easy to feel a bit panicky when something you want to buy at the grocery store is out of stock, especially when you’re trying to limit your forays into public. But scarcity of certain foods — or the fear of scarcity — can cause significant anxiety in people who have struggled with food insecurity in the past, an anxiety that no amount of purchased food can alleviate. Conversely, having a packed fridge, freezer and pantry while spending a lot more time at home can lead to mindless eating, binge-eating or even strong fears of overeating.

If you feel like you’re struggling with food right now — procuring it, preparing it or eating it — you’re not alone, and you’re not broken. I reached out to three Seattle-area nutrition and mental health professionals to find out what struggles they’ve been witnessing amid the coronavirus pandemic, and what advice they have to offer.

Grocery anxiety on Aisle 5

“We’re all so isolated right now that we can feel like we’re making these weird choices,” said Seattle registered dietitian and nutritionist Kristen Schweers of Real Nutrition. “Many people are feeling overwhelmed at the grocery store, and maybe they’re not going as often, so they’re buying more processed food and less fresh food.” She also said she’s seeing more guilt related to eating more “bad” foods — but vilifying certain foods isn’t a healthy mindset anytime — and especially not now.

If you have grocery-shopping anxiety right now, get in line (practicing physical distancing, of course). Schweers said the desire to avoid trips to the grocery store may lead some people to try to live off a small supply of food, while others may build up a stockpile of food, but they are hesitant to actually use it for fear of running out.

Seattle therapist and certified nutritionist Mindy Lu of Sunrise Nutrition said she’s particularly seeing a “hoarding mentality” in her clients from marginalized communities, among whom anxiety about getting enough food is significant — even when grocery shelves are fully stocked. The news that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 is horrifying, and systemic racism is likely both an underlying cause and an of-the-moment danger: “As a person of color, wearing a mask into the grocery store can make them feel unsafe,” Lu said.

Lu suggests fact-checking fears that there’s not enough food to go around, and making decisions about how much food to keep on hand on a week-by-week basis. Ask yourself what you need in order to feel safe, and consider alternatives such as grocery delivery or vegetable gardening. Being open to different foods can help ease the frustration of a desired food being out of stock, she said. “Sometimes things don’t work out the way we planned, and that’s OK. Try new recipes and find ways to adapt to new foods. Sometimes we have to be creative and we have to be flexible.”

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Social media and body concerns

While social media can be a way to connect safely with others, the glut of “Coronavirus 19” posts — a variation of the “Freshman 15” — can also trigger upsetting feelings about food and body. “I’m hearing how tired they are about seeing the weight-gain posts,” Schweers of about her clients. “They’re just sick of it.”

Lu recommends building “social media resilience,” which may include weeding your social media feed of accounts that make you feel bad about yourself and your body, and populating it with accounts that are more positive and reflect a range of body sizes. “People are really concerned about how their bodies are going to change after this,” Lu said. “I’ve been encouraging them to trust their bodies, because sometimes our bodies change, and that’s OK. Our bodies are so wise.” She also encourages looking at the big picture. “We’re in a global pandemic. Is gaining weight really the worst thing that could happen? We’re all going through collective trauma right now.”

Bellevue therapist Rena Chinn of Chinn Counseling said she’s observed significant concerns among people who have a high fitness level or a history of dieting that they can’t exercise, and that they may be perceived negatively if they gain weight. “Their irrational fear is that they won’t be accepted for gaining a few pounds,” she said. “I think behind it is a lack of kindness to ourselves.”

Need for comfort? That’s normal.

Schweers finds that whatever eating patterns someone might have had before COVID-19 are often amplified now. If you tended to be a grazer, you might find yourself nibbling all the time, perhaps mindlessly. “I feel like boredom is an issue,” Schweers said. “And when they wander into the kitchen, they’re not wanting a vegetable and a protein, they’re going for the chips.” She said this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “We’ve literally had all of our fun taken away from us. Let food be a joy.”

If you work for a company that used to provide one, two or even all three of your meals each day — but now you’re working from home — you may feel ill-equipped to meal-plan and shop, which can lead to random grocery store purchases. If you also live alone, you may find yourself doing more comfort-eating, especially since we have fewer tools for comfort, Chinn said. No massages, no hugs — and more loneliness. “We call it comfort food because some people find comfort in it,” she said.

While “this too shall pass,” as Schweers points out, what do we do until it does? “This is our new normal,” she said. “Can we settle into this, find our new structure, our new routine? Can we look for ways to find joy?”

Chinn said the current situation presents an opening to develop more mindfulness and more self-kindness as we take things day by day.

“This whole pandemic helps us slow down a little bit,” she said. “We could take the opportunity to decide what we want to keep when this is all over.”