COVID kilos are not here to stay

Many people in our community are struggling with weight gain after COVID-19 social isolation and as we slip into winter.

During the colder months, it can be more challenging to exercise as we begin to hibernate and seek warmth. We also might crave comfort food that is rich, hearty and heavy in carbohydrates, to keep our body warm and fight off the winter blues.

We can come to rely on food to make us feel better and take the edge off a bad mood or stressful situation.

Food can release a calming hormone called dopamine in the brain. The trouble then comes when the urge to use foods to soothe our emotions becomes a hardwired habit that is hard to break.

However, the right mindset, taking steps towards regular physical activity and healthy eating can lift the winter blues. There are comforts other than food, and the short cold winter days don’t have to lead to larger waistlines.

Recognise your triggers by keeping a food diary

Emotional eating can become an automatic behaviour, and breaking it will require awareness. While it can be challenging, keep a food diary and include what you eat, how much, when and how you are feeling when you eat, as well as your hunger scale. This will help raise your awareness of habits, as well as identify triggers and patterns of connection between food and mood. Common causes of emotional eating include stress, boredom, feelings of emptiness, social influences; all the emotions we’ve been feeling during these COVID-19 times.

Support new habits

Some habits develop as a default option because they’re easy and you don’t have to make too many decisions. They can be difficult to stop. You can find ways to improve habits by tweaking them to provide a benefit. For example, if you’re a snacker, remove unhealthy snacks from the cupboard and restock with healthy ones.

When it comes to eating

Don’t deprive yourself: eating the same foods repeatedly and banishing treats can increase cravings. Enjoy occasional treats but eat plenty of a variety of healthy foods to help curb cravings.

Savour your food: when you eat to feed your emotions, you tend to eat quickly and mindlessly. It helps by slowing down and enjoying the texture, taste and smell of your food. You will not only enjoy your food more but are also less likely to overeat. Practise mindful eating by focusing on your food and not eating while you are doing other things, such as watching TV, working or talking on the phone.

Hunger-Fullness Scale

1.     absolutely starving, feeling faint

2.     very hungry, need to eat

3.     feeling hungry, growling stomach

4.     could eat, slightly empty

5.     neutral

6.     satisfied

7.      slightly full

8.      feeling too full

9.     bloated with food

10.   so full you feel ill

Rethink your hunger scale: many of us have lost touch with what hunger feels like. If you are unsure whether the hunger is real or due to emotional triggers, try rating your hunger and fullness on a scale. This will make you more aware of what physical hunger means to you.

If you need dietary advice, ask your GP for a referral to an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Cope in healthy ways

While we need food for survival, there are healthier ways to cope with emotions:

  • Connect with others. Social support can go a long way towards helping you process your emotions
  • Make time for relaxation. Give yourself permission to take at least 30 minutes every day to relax and unwind. Learning to do deep breathing slowly can be an excellent start to calming the mind
  • See a psychologist. A psychologist can help you learn to manage stress without the involvement of food.

Move your body

Some people find relief from the winter blues or stress by getting regular exercise. Exercise causes the release of feel good chemicals called endorphins.

Walking and cycling are great exercise options during winter, provided you dress warmly and do an extended warm up (10-15 minutes).

This allows you to prepare your muscles and joints for your activity of choice and reduces any risk of injury.

Consider doing some muscle building exercises.  Have a think about things you can do with your own body weight or with objects around the house that can be used as resistance, for example, cans of food, water bottles, chair, elastic bands.

Ideally, you want to aim for 30 minutes of exercise per day, which can be broken down into smaller bouts, as appropriate.  For more specific advice and an individualised program, ask your GP for a referral to your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

By Michelle Tong, Dietitian CDE

Hayley Nicholson, Exercise Physiologist CDE

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