If you sat on the couch and ate Cheetos, drank chardonnay, and wore baggy sweatpants during the pandemic, guess what, it’s okay. The New York Times published an article recently talking about pandemic weight gain, and it used this specific anecdote as a point of failure compared to others who were making healthy meals and “riding their Peletons” during quarantine. This article is the perfect example of giving in to toxic diet culture, forcing women to think they need to change the bodies they currently have—and in very unhealthy ways.
I’m not even going to bother linking to this article because it’s complete garbage and you deserve better. Instead, I want us to focus on the psychological reasoning behind why we love eating comfort foods (like Cheetos) in stressful times. And why toxic diet culture is ultimately to blame. Not yourself.
Here’s why we love eating comfort foods
So, why do we eat Cheetos? Numerous psychological studies have proven that humans tend to turn to comfort foods as a response to something stressful going on in their lives. The reasoning behind it all comes back to nostalgia. One study published by the Association for Psychological Science found that eating comfort foods is closely linked with our relationships and can help alleviate loneliness.
For example, is there a food you always like to make when you think of your childhood? Maybe it’s meatballs and red sauce, homemade mac and cheese, or heck, even toasting up a Pop-Tart. Think of the situations in which you reach for those types of foods: are you also looking for that hit of nostalgia and comfort? Does it make you feel less lonely when you eat these childhood favorites?
Yeah, I thought so.
Your mood is also a huge culprit in your food decisions as well. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it’s common to reach for comforting “indulgent” foods when you’re in a bad mood as a way to boost the current mood you’re in. It’s a lot easier to eat healthier when you’re happier, but it’s not as easy when you’re not as happy. Or, you know, stuck at home for an entire year and can’t see your family. That will also do it.
While the definition of “comfort foods” can look different for everyone, most of the time those foods can be high in fat, sugar, salt, and refined carbohydrates. When consuming these types of foods, our bodies will release a hormone called serotonin that helps to elevate our bad moods.
This release of hormones is also a reason to why we turn to comforting foods in times of stress as well as loneliness. One study published by the UT Southwestern Medical Center points out how the “hunger hormone” gherlin is released in very stressful situations. Which means we tend to emotionally feel hungrier in stressful situations, even if our bodies don’t physically feel hungry for a meal.
So, to sum it up:
- We reach for comforting foods to be nostalgic about simpler times to feel less lonely
- We reach for comforting foods to change our bad moods
- We reach for comforting foods in stressful situations
The pandemic did all of these things. It took us away from loved ones. Our lives were completely changed, which could have easily put us in a never-ending bad mood. And dealing with a deadly virus will obviously stress us out.
So stop freaking out about the Cheetos. And the chardonnay. And the baggy sweatpants.
Why toxic diet culture is to blame
Okay so you ate the Cheetos…and the shame rolls in. Shame that you “failed” and didn’t make a healthier meal…or didn’t get on your Peleton.
The only reason you feel shame is because toxic diet culture wants you to think so.
Diet culture tells you to restrict your eating in order to get healthy, and if you decide to eat something unhealthy, you need to punish yourself by working off all of those calories at the gym.
So if you ate a bag of Cheetos, you may likely respond in two ways—you’ll go into “self-punishing” mode because toxic diet culture says you should. Or you keep eating unhealthy foods, because you’ve “already gone this far, might as well keep going” or you’ll “start it again on Monday.”
Instead of giving in to this vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting, what if you found a way to include those Cheetos and still be a healthy person. Sound impossible? It’s not.
What’s the solution for “pandemic pounds?”
First, don’t listen to that New York Times article. Drinking meal replacement milkshakes or going on a crash diet won’t work. It never does, it never will.
Second, don’t worry about the pandemic pounds. Our bodies just went through a lot, and quite honestly, those pounds may have nothing to do with what you ate and is all happening because of stress. If you don’t fit into your pre-pandemic jeans, just buy yourself a new pair and move on. You survived a pandemic, for crying out loud.
Third, promise yourself you’ll take care of yourself from now on. Take the time to really learn how to feed your body well. Choose to eat healthy as a means to feel good and live longer, not as a means to lose weight quickly. You’ll be even more motivated to stay on track if you think of health differently. And you know what, I bet you’ll lose a few of those pounds in the process. It will take time, but you’ll be happier and healthier in the long run.
Lastly, eat the Cheetos. If you’re not allowing yourself to eat your favorite comfort foods once in a blue moon, getting healthier is going to be absolutely impossible. Choose to follow this healthy eating formula for all of your meals, and pick a special time during the week to indulge in a serving of your favorite salty snack.
“Why Comfort Food Comforts” (The Atlantic)
“Serotonin, Comfort Foods and Trauma” (Eating Disorder Hope)
“Ghrelin likely involved in why we choose ‘comfort foods’ when stressed” (UT Southwestern Medical Center)
“Does Comfort Food Really Make You Feel Good?” (Psychology Today)
“Comfort Food to Console Your Stress” (Humanitas University)
“Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul” (Association for Psychological Science)
“Better moods for better eating?: How mood influences food choice” (Journal of Consumer Psychology)
“Eating Healthy and Still Gaining Weight? This Could Be Why” (Eat This, Not That!)