It shouldn’t be too much of a revelation that you’re not alone in turning to a box of cookies, bag of chips or tub of ice cream as a way to lighten lockdown gloom. Food is one of our few pandemic pleasures; it makes sense that the lines might blur between snacking as pastime and coping mechanism.
According to a new study by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, 77 per cent of Canadians are under more stress as a result of the global health crisis and over half (51.4 per cent) are finding comfort in food.
For its report on wellness and stress management, the lab surveyed 9,991 Canadians earlier this month. Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of respondents said that the pandemic has affected their eating habits and almost three in five (58 per cent) reported undesired weight changes.
Of the 42.3 per cent of Canadians who say they’ve gained weight, 37.3 per cent report an increase of six to 10 pounds since last spring.
“I’m not surprised that people reach for a cookie (or whatever it is) to make them feel better because it’s easy and it’s quick, and it’s right there,” says Janet Music, the lab’s research program coordinator. “Ten pounds isn’t going to break your life, so if those cookies got you through a bad day in isolation, then I think that it’s worth it.”
“People have been affected by the lack of normalcy in their lives,” he says. “Food can be a source of comfort and you don’t tend to measure the impact of those extra calories. After 14 months, it adds up.”
The researchers note that many people struggle with weight management as they age, regardless of changes in eating or exercise habits. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Nature Medicine, lipid turnover in fat tissue lessens as people get older, making it easier to gain weight.
While the survey suggests that regardless of region, Canadians are experiencing similar levels of pandemic-related stress, there are notable generational differences.
Younger generations reported feeling more stressed now than they did before COVID-19: 83 per cent of millennials, 82 per cent of Gen Zers, 78 per cent of Gen Xers, and 68 per cent of boomers.
“Generations Zs and millennials are much more affected by what’s happening and could be affected permanently,” says Charlebois. “In the (scientific) literature, bad eating habits tend to go from one generation to another. Unhealthy lifestyles will impact subsequent generations. So I think we’re looking at a really, really important issue here.”
Self-isolation from family and friends is seen as being the most profound personal pandemic stressor (67 per cent) followed by fear of COVID-19 itself (47.8 per cent) and work-life balance (46.9 per cent).
Results suggest that meal management has presented a significant challenge for Canadians during the pandemic, with just 8.8 per cent saying they’ve been able to handle mealtimes happily. Healthful noshing doesn’t appear to have been a priority, with 73.9 per cent of Canadians occasionally or never eating “healthy snacks.”
We may have been in pandemic mode for over a year, but the unpredictability of COVID-19 has made it difficult for people to adjust. “It’s like we all ran a marathon and got to the finish line, but still have untold miles to go,” says Music. “And that’s really difficult, especially for people who are working with children, or who have children and lost their jobs.”
Charlebois adds: “(The study) really shows that the pandemic came violently into our lives and a lot of people are still trying to find their food bearings.”
Many people self-identify as emotional eaters or stress eaters, she says. Seeking solace in food during times of worry is not only normal, it’s “a relatively benign coping response when we think of some of the other potential coping responses that are out there.”
When people feel as though they’ve lost control, food can seem like one of the few areas of their life they can take hold of. While eating for comfort “is often pathologized,” Tsui adds, “I would invite people to ask themselves, ‘Is my eating really the problem, or am I just trying to do the best that I can with the resources that I have available?’”
As the pandemic continues, she highlights, “the most important thing is self-compassion and compassion for each other.”
The emotional connection many people have with food is evident in the report: 61.3 per cent of respondents agreed that when they’re feeling down, a snack lifts their mood; 49.1 per cent reported more of a desire to eat when they’re depressed; 48 per cent said that eating makes them feel better when they’re lonely.
“Somehow gaining 10 pounds is a negative reflection of your time during the pandemic when there really shouldn’t be a value judgment on it. It’s just something that happened,” says Music. “It’s so frowned upon because it’s outside the ideal, and I think that’s pretty unfair to everyone, really.”