Working from home is one of the most important ways to help flatten the curve and get the coronavirus pandemic under control. But being out of your usual routine, having constant access to food, and being this stressed out can lead to some serious overindulging. If your eating has been a bit erratic, here are five strategies to help create some balance and consistency.
Develop a set eating schedule
In addition to preventing mindless eating, settling into a consistent routine will help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, hunger hormones, mental and physical energy, digestive health, and even your sleep cycle. Try to eat breakfast within about an hour of waking up, and aim for either three meals a day, or three meals and one snack, spaced about four to five hours apart.
For example, aim for breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at noon, a snack at 4 p.m., and dinner at 8 p.m., or breakfast at 9 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., and dinner at 6 p.m. Just try not to let over five hours go by without eating, and set your cell phone alarm as a reminder, at least until you settle into the routine. Without a schedule, you’re more likely to eat mindlessly throughout the day, or wait too long—and then rebound overeat.
Make sure your meals are nutritionally balanced
Rather than grabbing foods randomly, think strategically about the components of your meals. In every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, include some type of produce, along with lean protein and good fat as the foundation. These foods supply the nutrients needed to support a healthy metabolism and immune system.
For mental and physical fuel, incorporate a smaller portion of healthful carbs as an add-on. For example, instead of a big bowl of cereal and juice, opt for a smoothie made with a handful of frozen or fresh greens, plant protein powder, a few tablespoons of nut butter for good fat, and a cup of frozen fruit for healthful carbs.
Another example: a cup of fresh or frozen veggies sautéed with chickpeas or eggs for protein, extra virgin olive oil for good fat, and a small portion of brown rice or potato for healthful carbs. Being purposeful about what you include in each meals creates a better macro and micronutrient intake, and this healthy balance can help prevent weight gain.
Rethink what you drink
Keep a water bottle or cup next to you, and sip on it throughout the day. Avoid sugar drinks or products made with artificial sweeteners. Excess sugar can weaken immunity, and artificial sweeteners have been shown to throw off natural appetite regulation and stoke a sweet tooth.
If you drink alcohol, try to stick with moderate amounts (one to two drinks per day), and reduce the need to use alcohol by trying out other coping mechanisms, such as calling friends and family, engaging in at-home workouts, playing video games, or enjoying other healthy mini escapes.
Don’t forget about the calories in alcohol, and that being tipsy can increase appetite, and lower inhibitions. This can lead to overeating, and noshing on foods you probably wouldn’t eat when sober.
Know the difference between physical and emotional hunger
During a stressful time, it can be difficult to tell if you’re truly hungry—meaning your body needs nourishment—or if your mind is attracted to food to express or disconnect from your feelings. One helpful tactic is to tune into your body. Physical hunger has physical symptoms, like a slightly growling tummy.
If you’ve eaten a balanced meal and your stomach is full, yet you still feel hungry, you may be experiencing anxiety or loneliness. If you can stop and make the distinction, address your emotions in ways that don’t involve eating. And when you do eat, do so without distractions (no TV, computer, reading, phone, etc.), put down the food or your utensil between bites, and listen to your body’s cues. Stop eating when you feel full, but not overly full, and store the rest for another meal.
It’s not realistic to swear off goodies completely, and it’s not necessary. Enjoy your favorite can’t-live-without treats, but indulge mindfully rather than spontaneously. For example, if you want a cookie or two after lunch, reduce the portion of carbs in that meal to make room for the carbs in the cookies.
This isn’t at all about restriction; it’s about balance, and it feels good (unlike having zero treats or overindulging, which can leave you feeling stuffed and sluggish). Savor every bite, and move on with your day. Now more than ever, balance and consistency are key—not all or nothings.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health‘s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.