Social isolation, boredom and anxiety have been our companions throughout much of 2020. They are likely to be with us in 2021. We all have our ways of relieving the stress associated with the complexities of this pandemic, and many people turn to food for comfort.

Young adults aren’t exempt from the perils of pandemic eating, an ongoing study that began in 2013 and has followed nearly 2,000 young people since they were in the ninth grade found recently. University of Southern California researchers asked participants in the Happiness and Health study to complete a module entitled, “Behavioral actions specific to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

One way to cut down on lockdown-driven overeating may be to post mass messages on social media to make people more aware of the problem.

The participants, now young adults, were given a list of coping mechanism behaviors during the pandemic and asked to check all that applied to them. There were two food-related behaviors on the checklist — “eating high fat or sugary foods” and “eating more food than usual.”

Almost half of those who responded said that they were using food as a way of coping with the pandemic. Women and people prone to depression were more likely to engage in the food-related behaviors to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overeating and selecting unhealthy foods was associated with weight gain, especially among young people who were overweight prior to the pandemic. Average weight gain was about 5½ pounds.

As the pandemic continues, the impact of using food to cope and the resulting weight gain may not be reversible for some people, and this could have a significant impact on public health.

Average weight gain was about 5½ pounds.

The researchers suggest mass media messaging to make people aware of unhealthy eating behaviors in an effort to put the brakes on the potential adverse effects of the pandemic on the fight against obesity.

If you find yourself using food to cope with the stress of the pandemic, here are some strategies you can use to retrain yourself:

  • Monitor your weight daily. Fluctuations of a pound or so are normal. A continual upward creep is not normal.
  • Try stress management techniques like breathing slowly or exercising before you decide to munch.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast every morning consisting of a protein and a starch.
  • Plan snack breaks during the day to avoid getting too hungry which can cause you to make poor food choices.
  • Be aware of how you are feeling when you eat. Are you eating because you are hungry or because you are feeling bored, stressed or lonely? Try to eat only when you are truly hungry.
  • When you think you are hungry, try drinking some water, tea or coffee. You may be mistaking thirst for hunger, or you just might need a little pick-me-up to get you to the next meal or snack.
  • When you do eat, chew slowly and enjoy every bite. Give your body the 15 to 20 minutes it takes for your stomach to register that you’re full.
  • Exercise. Though the gym may be closed, you can still walk outdoors while maintaining an appropriate distance from others. You can also find many online exercise videos and classes.

    The study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.