Interview: Eating against uncertainty

A piece of cake here, a bag of chips there and a frozen pizza in the evening. Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, many Germans have increased significantly. An expert says why this is

Becoming aware of your own eating habits: Fixed meal times and keeping a food diary can help

© iStock / LaylaBird

Why is the crisis increasing our need for food? The nutritional psychologist Dr. Thomas Ellrott from the Institute for Nutritional Psychology at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen knows the answers:

Dr. Ellrott, you are researching why people eat differently from what is actually advisable from a health point of view. A current study shows that we have been eating particularly hard since the corona pandemic. Do you have an explanation as to why?

The corona pandemic is associated with many uncertainties. We cannot shape our lives the way we would like to. Many people live and often at home, the children are also mostly at home, which means that there is limited space. And new potential for conflict arises. The situation is particularly stressful for people who are worried about their job, are afraid of financial difficulties or are concerned about their own health or that of their loved ones. They plague diffuse fears that can trigger a feeling of powerlessness and loss of control.

So do we eat bacon?

The negative feeling of powerlessness and loss of control has a significant influence on our eating behavior. Because in order to eat consciously and make healthy decisions, our brain needs computing power. Now, with Corona, a new enemy has stepped onto the stage from outside, which burdens us in addition to our normal everyday worries and takes a lot of attention in our brain. It's paradoxical. Although many people are less on the go and actually have more time, Corona means additional stress. And stress absorbs exactly the processing power of the brain that we actually need to eat better. In stressful situations, we eat very automatically - and hardly think about our health.

Dr.Thomas Ellrott

© private

Just during the first lockdown in March, people started hoarding food. Was that also a reflex against our fear?

Absolutely. Through this hoarding of flour, pasta or canned food, we had the feeling of regaining control over our lives and not being helpless in the situation, but being able to actively do something. Buying gives you a sense of control.

Is eating in the Corona time also a way to comfort us about our worries?

Some people try to force positive feelings through food. But that doesn't work so easily in a crisis. Because in order to trigger pleasant emotions, you need the right food as well as the right situation. It's like the wine that tasted so delicious on vacation with friends. At home alone in front of the TV with the latest bad news from Corona, the same wine no longer tastes really good and certainly does not trigger feelings of happiness.

Restaurants are closed, canteens are also closed. Many eat alone at home. Do we eat more than is good for us due to social isolation?

Eating is also an important social behavior. Eating with others is something that embeds us in society and makes life worth living. That is missing when we are sitting alone in front of the plate. There are people who meet virtually for dinner in digital communities, but this is not a real substitute for community. Social contacts and bonds are infinitely important for people. If we have to severely restrict this, as is the case at the moment, our health can suffer and, among other things, the risk of depression increases. And those who are depressed are less able to look after themselves and, for example, worry about their diet. In addition, there is the unfavorable effect of the corona restrictions on physical activity in everyday life and during sports.

How do we manage to eat healthily despite social isolation?

It is important not to surrender passively to the corona pandemic, but to use your own creative freedom despite the crisis. What helps a lot is planning. The weekend is ideal for this, because many people have time to think about what they would like to eat in the coming days, what purchases need to be made, what can be pre-cooked. The moment you start planning, you will regain control of your life. I also advise you to have fixed meal times in the home office. This structures everyday life and also gives the feeling of normality. And: do not follow corona news all day. The permanent shower of frightening news increases the feeling of loss of control and depresses the mood.

Do you have any tips on what we can do about it if the pointer on the scales keeps climbing up during these times?

I have three simple, inexpensive and side-effect-free tips for this. First, write down what you eat. You can use one of the numerous nutrition apps for this, and a notebook can do the same. The moment you jot down a note or snap a photo of your own meal, you become aware of your eating choices and often make healthier choices. My second tip: get on the scales once a week. This is a good way of self-control and you can take countermeasures earlier if the weight slowly increases. My last tip is simple but efficient. Drink a glass of water before every meal. Then you already have something in your stomach and then automatically eat slightly smaller portions.