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For almost three weeks, the UK has been on virtual lockdown, with people across the country forced to stay indoors in a bid to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
Despite the uncertainty and chaos, some things remain constant: how to avoid boredom and stressed-induced food cravings?
Being cooped up at home for hours on end during lockdown means that health and diet are arguably more important than ever.
But extra time spent at the home also means easy access to some of our favourite treats, increased boredom and ultimately more snacking.
And with Easter Sunday just around the corner and chocolate eggs aplenty, you might be wondering how you can avoid over-indulging.
With the help of psychologists, nutritionists and dieticians, The Independent explains why we snack more when we’re stressed and bored, and what you can do to help kick the cravings.
Why do we snack more when we’re stressed and bored?
A snack generally refers to a small amount of food eaten between the three main meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The motivation to eat outside of these usual meal times depends on a range of external factors such as the time of day, the type of food available and where we are.
Other factors can include stress and the urge to distract ourselves from mundane situations. And as we approach week three of lockdown, people are understandably becoming more bored and stressed.
Dr Rachel Chin, a clinical psychologist at Pennine Care NHS Trust, tells The Independent that having to adapt to new and challenging environments will have an impact on the way we eat.
“It is likely that many of us are snacking more during lockdown as our routines have significantly changed; we are at home surrounded by food which is easily accessible,” she adds.
Dr Chin also says that it’s important to recognise that lockdown is a stressful time for all of us and that the urge to eat outside of regular meal times is natural.
“When we are stressed, stress hormones are released into the body and the fight-or-flight response is triggered,” she says.
“When we experience this response, our body thinks it’s in danger and needs fuel (food) for these extra tasks it may have to perform. The body cannot differentiate between what is a real threat and a perceived threat.”
Dr Jonathan Pointer, a chartered clinical psychologist, says that boredom and a lack of social interaction can contribute to more snacking.
“[…] We are stressed because of our fears relating to Covid-19, and bored because our usual was of engaging with life, such as through socialising, have been greatly reduced,” he tells The Independent.
“When we experience uncomfortable feelings, such as stress, we tend to want to distract ourselves from them, and snacking is one way that some people use to manage their feelings.”
What can we do to snack less during lockdown?
Many of us tend to snack on different things depending on our moods and circumstances.
Research published in the Advances in Nutrition Journal shows that unhealthy foods that are heavily-salted, sweetened, and high in fat are those we tend to choose the most when feeling peckish.
Chips, desserts and sugar-heavy drinks are still among the most popular snacks in several different countries, according to this research.
So at a time when many are exercising less, what can we do avoid over-snacking and ensure we cut out the bad stuff?
“Eating foods that fill us up for longer is important, this includes high-calorie health foods such as avocados and nuts, and making sure your main meals contain a source of protein,” says Jade Eaton, an expert in nutrition and psychology at Harley Street Clinic ProHealth.
“Keeping occupied is also a key solution to snacking less. This can include playing a childhood game or completing an online exercise class. Also, Face-timing friends to increase social connection is a great way to distract us from using snacking as a source of comfort,” she adds.
The key to cutting out snacking is to find alternative stress and boredom management technique to occupy your mind whenever cravings for unhealthy food kick in. Short meditation sessions, connecting with friends and family or even dancing to your favourite music can help.
“Your brain is constantly sending chemical signals to your body and it is really important that we take the time to consider what our brain really needs from us in that moment, rather than relying on food each time,” Sophie Medlin, a dietician at Heights, tells The Independent.
What should we be eating during lockdown?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential not only for physical health, but also for mental health, particularly when we are spending so much time at home.
A balanced diet “[…] means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight,” according to official NHS guidance.
This includes at least five portions of fruit and vegetables, meals high in fibre, some dairy or dairy alternatives, beans and pulses and unsaturated oils and spreads.
“Of course, it’s best to continue to access a varied ‘Meditteranean’ diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, monounsaturated fats, like nuts, olive oil and avocados and healthy proteins sources including fish and chicken,” Mike Pavlou, a nutritionist at ExSeed Health tells The Independent.
“However, with many attempting to limit their number of trips outside, there will of course be an increased reliance on tinned and frozen goods that can last for a longer period while continuing to deliver many of the essential nutrients needed.”
Pavlou stresses that there is no shame in stocking up on tinned goods during the lockdown, many of which can provide the nutrition needed to keep us healthy and our brains active while spending prolonged periods indoors.
He also recommends five long-life foods that “can form the basis of any shopping trip”: tinned tomatoes, nuts, frozen salmon, dark chocolate and frozen berries.