By Blake Metcalf, Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Manager, Baptist Health-Fort Smith
Have you found yourself checking the refrigerator every 20 minutes for the last few weeks?
You’re certainly not alone.
Dietitians have been answering a lot of questions on how to minimize weight gain during quarantine. First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with you. This is a perfectly normal response to stress, anxiety and even boredom.
However, I find that people tend to focus on the wrong details when trying to address this problem. They feel that they need to be more productive, more disciplined and exercise more. Maybe in a perfect world, but right now we are on relatively uncertain grounds. This may not be the best time to get out of your comfort zone. However, there is some hope for bored or emotional eaters.
Here is why many of us are experiencing the “refrigerator-pantry loop” problem, and some strategies to address it.
Most commonly, you may find yourself on a non-stop loop of checking the fridge, then the pantry, then back to the fridge just to double check. After a while, this may worry you and cause you to start to restrict your diet in order to offset these extra snacking calories. You might start by trying to convince yourself that you aren’t hungry and that you’re just boredom eating. This will eventually lead to “I’ll just have a little bit of (insert favorite snack here) to stop the cravings” which eventually leads to a free-for-all with a bag of chips. Does this sound like you?
Why Do I Do This?
Most people try to use their willpower to get themselves out of this situation, but spend enough time taxing your willpower and nature will certainly begin to take its course. Research has shown that when people begin restricting their diet, they often wind up eating more than they would have if they had never tried to restrict in the first place.
In fact, one of the most famous studies looking at periods of food restriction found that their subjects suddenly became obsessed with food even though they still wanted to complete the research study. The subjects could be heard talking about different recipes or how to modify foods to maximize flavor while some even contemplated changing their careers to become a chef. That’s right, these people were considering a career change because they couldn’t eat when and what they wanted.
In short, our bodies are very good at dealing with short periods of starvation. But, restrict for too long and every snack in your pantry looks like it was made by a 5-star chef. Add in some anxiety and/or other stressors and you’ve got a major problem. We are wired to survive.
The solution is counterintuitive, but it should help with the problem of running back and forth to the fridge. Instead of finding ways to restrict yourself in order to offset the calories, eat a full and complete meal during your normally scheduled eating times. This won’t immediately fix the problem, but it can help soothe some of the obsession around eating.
Instead of just grabbing little bites here and there, find a good combination of foods that makes you feel like you actually ate something. Even though you are eating more in a sitting, it will help offset the extra calories from snacking because you’ll be able to think of something other than food for a while. Restriction just means that you’re intensifying the craving.
You’re human, don’t beat yourself up if you fall short of your plan or gain a little bit of weight. This too shall pass.
Try not to think of foods as “good” or “bad”
This just intensifies the obsession. It’s just food. Don’t give it unnecessary power over you.
Break the habits
Willpower and discipline are still important here, but what’s more important is setting yourself up for success. Get creative and find a way that helps you break the cycle of the refrigerator-pantry trip.
Add fruits and vegetables to each meal
This can help add some volume to your stomach, which can help you feel full. Again, the point is to eat more food during mealtimes to help decrease the obsession. Example: 1 cup of watermelon is less than 50 calories, but the average granola bar is 200 calories. The watermelon will help you feel like you ate something. The granola bar will probably not. Most fruits and vegetables are very low in calories and high in fiber, so eat all that you need in order to feel full after the meal is over. Canned, frozen or raw – just add them to each meal in a way that you enjoy.
Check your protein
Protein is a very satiating nutrient, meaning that it causes people to feel full for longer than other nutrients. Try to get a good amount at each meal, which is around 20-40 grams, 3 to 4 times per day for the average person. Always stick with your doctor or dietitian’s advice if they have given you instruction. Otherwise, don’t obsess over the numbers but if you find that you are eating significantly lower than that, you should work to increase it over time.
Keep your liquid calories to a minimum (but stay hydrated while at home)
However, many people take this to extremes. If you are forcing yourself to finish your water, then you might be overdoing it. You shouldn’t be nauseated by your water intake.
Sleep doesn’t get enough credit for helping people keep their diet in order. Prioritize it! Turn off your phone or TV, do some deep breathing and get your room as dark as you can. A cool room helps too, if you can afford to do so. For more sleep tips, visit our Health Library.
Don’t worry if it’s right or if it’s the best way to do it. Just move and find a way to have fun with it. It’s a great distraction and a truly underrated therapy for health in general.