Eating during times of great stress or sadness can be very healing. Graphic created by Cienna Roget.

Picture these: cheesy fries, chicken parmigiana, burritos. Is your mouth watering yet?

Food and health experts claim American eating habits are worse than ever before — and guess what? It’s pandemic related.

As the Coronavirus pandemic ignites fear throughout the country, the need for comfort has increased dramatically. Food serves as a primary means for comfort and coping. 

Dr. Ipek Aykol observes the pro’s and con’s pertaining to emotional eating. Image provided by Ipek Aykol.

Licensed therapist and Chapman professor Ipek Aykol recognizes the security food provides, especially during this stressful time.

“Once the pandemic hit, many people turned to comfort food as a stress-reduction technique,” Aykol notes.

The use of food as a coping mechanism is scientifically known as “emotional eating.” Emotional eating provides immediate gratification by reducing stress in the moment; however, it does not fix the feelings that trigger the emotional eating in the first place, which prolongs the pursuit of eating comforting food.

“Comfort food provides a temporary relief from stress and all the changes in one’s life, but many people started struggling with body image issues and increased weight,” Aykol continues, exposing foods’ mental-health benefits and weight-gaining detriments.

Emotional eating yields a vicious cycle regarding one’s relationship with self and food: first comes the extreme emotion prompting emotional eating, second comes emotional eating itself, third comes weight gain, fourth comes the negative mental aftereffects surrounding weight gain, which finally leads toward the necessity to be comforted once again — comforted by food.

Left: A cyclical depiction of the stages of emotional eating. Right: Feet on a scale to demonstrate weight gain throughout the pandemic. Graphic created and image taken by Paige Hughes.
Jennifer Losch, smiling here, expresses her struggle with eating when feeling negative emotions. Image provided by Jennifer Losch.

Senior film production student Jennifer Losch shares her experience with emotional eating during times of great stress — such as dealing with a worldwide pandemic.

“I will eat a lot because I’m sad, eat a lot because I’m bored and eat a lot when I’m stressed […] I snack to make myself feel better,” Losch expresses.

In 2019, the CDC adult-obesity prevalence map displayed 12 states as having an adult-obesity population equal or greater than 35 percent, a nine-state increase from 2018. 

Essentially, American’s love food — particularly unhealthy foods.

Now, in 2020, Americans face greater obesity records, which present great turmoil in today’s health-conscious, pandemic world. 

Tuna and avocado are high in protein and healthy fats, making them a delicious, healthy, AND comforting meal. Image taken by Paige Hughes.

Unhealthy foods impair consumers’ immune systems, making those who eat unhealthily much more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. 

This sparks a great need for compromise: eating healthy foods that still provide comfort, according to Licensed Orange County nutritionist Marissa Kent.

“I think comfort foods have a lot of power because of their effectiveness in numbing emotions, but I don’t think many people realize you can eat comforting foods that are also healthy,” explains Dr. Kent.

Although promises of a vaccine increase hopes for the end of the current health crisis, Kent worries that if Americans don’t make a pivotal switch to healthier eating, the country may be facing a new health crisis very soon.

Marissa Kent implores for a change in American eating habits. Image provided by Dr. Kent.

Following a trend seen throughout Los Angeles County, Orange County features many restaurants only serving healthy foods. These restaurants harmoniously combine health and comfort, offering an alternative approach to emotional eating. Indigo Phan, a server at Newport Beach’s Flower Child, gives insight on how the restaurant has been affected by the virus.

“I’ve definitely seen a lot more customers coming through [our restaurant] in the last couple of months, so I do believe a lot of people are trying their best to keep a healthy diet,” says Phan.

Boasting about the abundance of healthy selections at Flower Child, Phan mentions, “I think Flower Child does a great job of giving people hearty and healthy options […] our bowls are what people order the most, and [the bowls] are all super healthy.”

Flower Child restaurant, located in Newport Beach, awaits customers before their lunch rush. Image taken by Paige Hughes.

Losch claims True Food and Tender Greens are two of her favorite restaurants in the area because “the portions are a good size, and since the menus feature all kinds of healthy food I never feel bad about myself for eating there.”

Left: True Food at Fashion Island is dedicated to serving fresh and healthy food daily. Right: Tender Greens, located in the University of California Irvine shopping center, takes salads to a whole new level, allowing the consumer to completely customize their order. Images taken by Paige Hughes.

Urban Plates, with locations all throughout Orange County, serves everything from salads to low-calorie desserts, providing consumers an opportunity to explore healthy alternatives to traditional after-meal treats. Urban Plates server Tiffany Jones comments on the amount of dessert orders the restaurant has seen since the beginning of quarantine in March.

“We have really good desserts here, so it really hasn’t surprised me that more and more people are saving room for dessert at the end of their meals,” explains Jones. “I think people are definitely using these desserts to comfort themselves.”

The Tustin Market Place Urban Plates gives consumers a plethora of healthy comfort foods to choose from. Image taken by Paige Hughes.

Lauren Diuco, senior business administration student, has discovered a newfound love for açai bowls, naming Fullerton’s Uba Tuba as her eatery of choice.

“Not only is the vibe amazing at Uba Tuba, but their [açai bowls] are out of this world. This is the only place I know of that lets you build your own bowl, and they’re typically pretty generous with the serving sizes for toppings,” Diuco voices.

Left: Lauren Diuco explores healthy food throughout the county and loves to try out new restaurants. Right: Uba Tuba’s bowls, with this one containing strawberries; bananas; açai; granola and honey, are a perfect way to receive natural vitamins and to increase one’s immune system. Left image provided by Lauren Diuco. Right image taken by Paige Hughes.

While emotional eating is irresistible to some, there are ways to stop emotional eating before it begins. Some signs of onset emotional eating include but are not limited to:

  1. When hunger hits suddenly and escalates to a state of urgency
  2. Craving unhealthy foods
  3. Mindless eating
  4. Guilt and/or shame

If unable to resist emotional eating, eating healthy, comforting foods during an emotional-eating episode is the best substitute. After all, emotional eating is a pandemic in itself.

Eliminate unhealthy foods like cheesy fries from your pandemic-era diet. Image taken by Paige Hughes.
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