A friend recently confessed that she gained weight since I last saw her in February, when COVID-19 was just on the horizon. She attributed the weight gain to her daily chocolate binge, a habit which began after multiple family members came down with the virus. Her family members have since recovered but two colleagues tragically lost their own battles with COVID-19. To cope, her daily binges continue. She said, “I think I am suffering from some kind of eating disorder because I cannot control my eating of sweets.”
Coping With COVID-19-Related Anxiety
The anxiety she is experiencing is not unique. Express Scripts recently reported that prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs increased by 34.1% between January 19 and March 15. As the number of COVID-19 cases grow, it is likely that there will be an increase in prescriptions for these drugs, as well as an increase in binge eating.
The Link Between Anxiety & Binge Eating
There is a well-defined link between emotional distress and binge eating. According to the American Psychiatric Association, binge eating is defined as recurring episodes of consuming significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances. Anxiety is a common trigger of these episodes of excessive eating. A study of female students between the ages of 14 and 25 years old found that tension, sadness and anxiety often preceded participants’ binge eating.
When reviewing the risk factors associated with eating disorders, Rosenbaum and White found anxiety significantly associated with binge eating. However, the majority of those surveyed in these studies had a history of anxiety and many had an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Dealing With Increased Anxiety Due To World Events
The situation is different for those who, like my friend, are experiencing anxiety specifically in response to COVID-19. Perhaps they are at increased risk, have experienced the virus and/or lost family members or friends, or are present in areas where few are taking precautions, any of which could cause anxiety. Some are opting to endure their anxiety with medications, such as benzodiazepines, which reduce anxiety and help with sleep, but can also be highly addictive.
Carbs: A Natural Alternative To Anxiety Medication
My friend discovered a “natural,” non-addictive, prescription-free remedy to the anxiety she is experiencing. She turned to carbs, specifically the sugar found in chocolate. If consumed in the correct amount and at the right times, sugar and starchy carbs increase serotonin synthesis and activity, leading to decreased anxiety and a sense of calm within about 30 minutes of consuming the carbs.
Unlike anxiety medications like benzodiazepines, eating carbs is an effective way to feel calm, avoid negative side effects from medication and prevent weight gain. Furthermore, carbs for mood is a strategy that can be repeated throughout the day.
What’s most important is tracking the dosage of chocolate, or other comforting carbs, to ensure that the positive effects are experienced without the weight gain.
Chocolate Is Great, But Other Carbs Are More Effective
We love chocolate, in small doses, but chocolate isn’t the best food choice to help with anxiety, because its high-fat content makes it higher in calories and ultimately slows down digestion and subsequently the onset of calmness. I recommend using very low-fat breakfast cereals, pretzels, potatoes, pasta, and bread instead. Foods with significant amounts of fat, such as butter, cheese and peanut butter should be used sparingly to keep calories low and keep up the pace of digestion for a quicker calming effect.
Carbs For Serotonin Synthesis
25-30 grams of carbs is all that is required to promote serotonin synthesis in the brain, leading to a more relaxed mood. Bingeing, or eating until you are too full to eat anymore, will not effectively promote calmness. Just as most people do not binge on a bottle of Tylenol to lessen muscle pain, knowing that they simply need to take the correct dose and wait for the pain to subside, we don’t encourage anyone to binge on carbs until they wait 20-30 minutes to feel the calming effect. This can be difficult to do, so we recommend distracting yourself while you wait, whether it be a walk outside, a puzzle, time with a pet, or something else that will keep you entertained.