Recognising the triggers for over-eating or increased alcohol intake during the pandemic; experts look at how to curb the cravings

Recent studies looking at ‘life in lockdown’ suggest that, due to the current global situation, 35% of the British public believe they are “eating more food or less healthy food than normal .” Nearly a fifth (19%) say they are drinking more alcohol.

Indeed, new global retail data has indicated that the sale of alcohol has increased by a staggering 291%.

Priory psychiatrists and therapists agree that in this extraordinary climate – with the majority of the population now working from home, and adjusting to a new normal – it is unsurprising that many people are now facing a daily temptation to over-eat or drink because of the constant availability of food and alcohol and the absence of structure.

Coupled with emotional ‘triggers’ caused by the current crisis, the prospect of over-eating or increased alcohol intake looks set to pose its own risk to overall health and wellbeing.

Alexia Dempsey, an eating disorder dietician at the Priory’s Roehampton Hospital, explains;

“Emotional – or stress eating – is something that affects many of us at various points in our lives…and to varying degrees. At the best of times, daily life can still lead to stress, sadness, fear, boredom, and loneliness and, in turn, this can lead to emotional eating.

“This feels as though it needs to be satisfied and ‘dealt with’ immediately. It happens as a way of supressing or distracting negative thoughts and feelings and as such, it can be seen as a form of self-soothing. In the short-term, this response can feel functional but in the long-term it simply supports a cycle of difficult and distressing feelings followed by low self-worth.

She adds;

“With emotional overeating, an individual will use food as a distraction from the negative. The foods may include chocolate, crisps, sweets, foods that are considered to be a ‘treat’ although people often report carbohydrate-based binges, which can be linked to increased serotonin, a chemical that has been found to alleviate low mood and anxiety. It therefore makes sense that in times of stress, such as the unprecedented and uncertain times we are currently experiencing, we will also see a widespread increase in people craving these ‘feel good’ foods – which in turn can lead to negative feelings of guilt as well as have an impact on self-esteem, health and wellbeing.”

For anyone wanting to tackle over-eating, Priory’s Alexia Dempsey, suggests the following practical tips;

• Have a plan: think about your food in advance for the day ahead to ensure you have regular meals, which will help you to avoid snacking and reacting to hunger pangs

• Find a balance: try to ensure your meals include all food groups, which means carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fats where this is possible. This will help you feel full and encourage slow gastric emptying and prolonged satiety.

• Avoid distractions when eating: eating and watching TV/using laptops and phones means that you are not engaging with your food and are likely to miss initial biological cues that you are satisfied with how much you have eaten

• Change environment: if you feel like ‘’bingeing’ or are worried that you are about to engage in a binge, try and change environment. Whether you usually eat or snack in your kitchen, bedroom or sitting room, aim to get up and move to a different area or head out to your garden for a while

• Hydrate: being dehydrated can cause tiredness, sluggishness, poor concentration, irritability – and hunger. It’s easy for us to mistake dehydration for hunger. Ensure you are drinking enough fluid during the day – aim for around 1.5-2l

• Plan how to manage your feelings: sometimes we need to distract ourselves from a feeling of wanting to binge; have a bath, paint your nails, read a book or go for a run. Staying social – even from a distance – is important during these times and a great diversion from food or comfort eating. Call or message a friend for a chat if you feel tempted to snack

• Seek support: overeating or emotional eating can be passing …or it can become highly distressing behaviour for an individual. If you are feeling worried about your eating, seek support from a registered specialist professional

According to consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell, alcohol addiction expert at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton; “The enormous stress caused by the Covid-19 crisis, and the social isolation, is leading to more people trying to cope by using alcohol. It’s cheaper to drink at home, and so much easier to drink more.

“I see people whose drinking levels have crept up on them and who use alcohol to cope with unreasonable work pressures, or life crises. But drinking is not a coping strategy.”

“So, while people might be tempted to ‘self-medicate’ for worry or anxiety in this way, it could also be a positive time to ‘try and look honestly’ at your weekly alcohol consumption.”

Dr Campbell suggests;

• Keep a drink diary. Familiarise yourself with what a ‘unit’ consists of and what the alcohol unit guidelines are (no more than 14 units a week). It is not as simple as one drink, one unit. Large wine glasses hold 250ml, which is nearly three units or more in a single glass. Likewise, one pint of strong lager can contain more than three units of alcohol. A 750ml bottle of red, white or rosé wine contains around 10 units. By knowing what you consume, you can make decisions about levels

• Know your ABVs. When looking at your consumption, consider the ABV of what you were drinking. Wine that says ’13 ABV’ – ABV stands for ‘alcohol by volume’ – on its label contains 13% pure alcohol. The ABV of popular ‘new world’ wines from New Zealand and Australia can be more than European wines

• Think about the side-effects of drinking too much – on your physical, mental and emotional health. Remind yourself of your worst or most embarrassing hangover. Thinking about these things will help you decide you might want to change, because the benefits of reducing or giving up alcohol are manifold

• Reducing your alcohol intake is a huge incentive to losing weight and looking better, because there are lots of hidden calories in alcohol. The average wine drinker in England takes in around 2,000 calories from alcohol every month. Drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200 calories over a year, which is equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts. And if you spend, say, around £20 a week on 2-3 bottles of wine, you will save £1,040 in 12 months

Pamela Roberts, addiction therapy manager at Priory’s Woking Hospital, concurs that for those already struggling with alcoholism, the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing lockdown has been incredibly challenging.

“Addiction is an illness, which is often but wrongly portrayed as a choice and this can make life very difficult for those who are struggling with alcohol addiction. This is a difficult and testing time for everyone, and planning for the situation you’re in is going to be the best way of keeping yourselves safe – dig out recovery plans and relapse prevention guides.

“You will need to call on all your support networks during this time. Use calming phone apps to help you focus for a while on something other than your triggers. Manage stress and anxiety using meditations, and links to other resources.

“Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and other 12-step fellowships offer online meetings which may also help you to find structure when your normal routine has been disrupted. The fellowships are working hard to ensure these are still manned, and it’s worth keeping their numbers close to hand as another link in your support system.”