The link between food, mood, and weight gain
Have you been worrying about your “quarantine-15”?1 Don’t worry—there is a scientific reason that so many people are dealing with unwanted weight gain during confinement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, one of the most significant contributors to weight gain while living in confinement is the very act of consuming a high amount of “junk food”2.
But, did you know that this may have roots in how you feel emotionally?
Interestingly, many individuals have reported an increased feeling of general anxiety and worry over personal health status (i.e., hypochondriasis) and have also experienced significant changes in sleep quality3. Moreover, these individuals tended to blame their snacking on relative changes to their emotional status.
So, is it possible that your mood and food can influence each other? And, is this relationship impacted by confinement?
Let’s find out…
How can confinement influence your mood and affect your diet?
First and foremost, confinement and/or social isolation can have direct impacts on mood and mental health.
For example, expeditioners who were forced to isolate during a trip to Antarctica tended to report higher levels of depressed mood4. Interestingly, they also felt relatively unhappy with any social support they were given while on their expedition.
Other human studies have shown that social isolation and feelings of loneliness were associated with an elevated risk for mental health complications5,6, while rodent studies suggest that isolation can increase anxiety-like behavior, alcohol consumption, and behavioral tendencies that may be associated with psychiatric disorders7.
In other words, when forced to isolate for prolonged periods, it is common to become more anxious and depressed, and that isolation may reduce the effects of social support and increase alcohol consumption.
Interestingly, rates of drinking alcohol have increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic8, which is an important point to make given the relationship between heavy drinking and poor diet9,10.
In other words, it has been shown that people who drink high amounts of alcohol tend to consume diets that are higher in saturated fats and refined sugars.
Confinement can also generate feelings of anxiety because we may be constantly worrying about what will happen with our jobs, how long this pandemic will stretch out for, or simply when life will just return to normal.
These feelings of uncertainty can really play with our minds and actually stimulate anxiety11. In other words, the simple lack of control over a situation can fuel anxious thoughts and cause us to feel a general sense of unease as we continue to remain in confinement and ruminate over our thoughts and worries.
Finally, when in confinement, we tend to experience a dramatic reduction in the amount of physical activity12,13, which may influence mood disorders14 and poor dietary choices15.
So, how is this all related to your diet and weight gain?
Studies have shown that increased anxiety over future uncertainty or psychological stress can fuel emotional eating16,17, otherwise called “stress eating”. This can lead us to consume foods that are higher in saturated fats and refined sugars.
Importantly, both fats and refined sugars have been shown to increase depressed mood18,19, while diets high in saturated fat have been shown to increase anxiety20,21.
In other words, becoming anxious, stressed, and depressed can cause you to turn to comfort foods more often. Unfortunately, these comfort foods only provide a masking effect on your emotions, almost like an emotional bandage, as their consumption can actually increase anxiety and depressed mood—especially if consumed frequently.
All of this can be potentiated with alcohol added to the mix.
Ways to reduce the effects of confinement on your mood and diet
Exercise is highly recommended to combat the negative effects of prolonged social isolation22, especially due to the findings that inactivity can lead to many health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, which are health issues associated with the heart and blood vessels23.
You can also try and reduce the availability of snacks around your house! “Out of sight, out of mind,” after all—check out this list of approaches you can take to reduce mindlessly snacking around the house.
Interestingly, studies suggest adding nitrate-rich foods and beverages, such as beetroot juice, to your diet can help reduce the negative impact of confinement and inactivity on cardiovascular health23.
Finally, avoid, or at least, minimize, the amount of alcohol consumed, to prevent its negative effects on mood and snacking.
These are only some of the things you can try to avoid weight gain and promote better health while in confinement. All of these approaches, in addition to getting a better sleep, are sure to help you avoid packing on that “quarantine-15”.
As always, consult your physician if you are considering any significant changes to your lifestyle and/or diet.
Pearl, R. L. Weight Stigma and the “Quarantine-15”. Obesity 28, 1180–1181 (2020).
de Luis, D. et al. Effect of lockdown for covid-19 on self-reported body weight gain in a sample of obese patients. Nutr. Hosp. (2020) doi:10.20960/nh.03307.
Renzo, L. Di et al. Psychological aspects and eating habits during covid-19 home confinement: Results of ehlc-covid-19 italian online survey. Nutrients 12, 1–14 (2020).
Palinkas, L. A., Johnson, J. C. & Boster, J. S. Social support and depressed mood in isolated and confined environments. Acta Astronaut. (2004) doi:10.1016/S0094-5765(03)00236-4.
Chou, K. L., Liang, K. & Sareen, J. The association between social isolation and DSM-IV mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders: Wave 2 of the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. J. Clin. Psychiatry (2011) doi:10.4088/JCP.10m06019gry.
Loades, M. E. et al. Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2020) doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009.
Skelly, M. J., Chappell, A. E., Carter, E. & Weiner, J. L. Adolescent social isolation increases anxiety-like behavior and ethanol intake and impairs fear extinction in adulthood: Possible role of disrupted noradrenergic signaling. Neuropharmacology (2015) doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2015.05.025.
Jacob, L. et al. Alcohol use and mental health during COVID-19 lockdown: A cross-sectional study in a sample of UK adults. Drug Alcohol Depend. (2021) doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108488.
Nelson, M. C., Lust, K., Story, M. & Ehlinger, E. Alcohol use, eating patterns, and weight behaviors in a university population. Am. J. Health Behav. (2009) doi:10.5993/AJHB.33.3.1.
Bellis, M. A. et al. The alcohol harm paradox: Using a national survey to explore how alcohol may disproportionately impact health in deprived individuals. BMC Public Health (2016) doi:10.1186/s12889-016-2766-x.
Grupe, D. W. & Nitschke, J. B. Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 14, 488–501 (2013).
Schrempft, S., Jackowska, M., Hamer, M. & Steptoe, A. Associations between social isolation, loneliness, and objective physical activity in older men and women. BMC Public Health (2019) doi:10.1186/s12889-019-6424-y.
Pecanha, T., Goessler, K. F., Roschel, H. & Gualano, B. Social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic can increase physical inactivity and the global burden of cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Physiology - Heart and Circulatory Physiology (2020) doi:10.1152/ajpheart.00268.2020.
Peluso, M. A. M. & Guerra de Andrade, L. H. S. Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood. Clinics (São Paulo, Brazil) (2005) doi:10.1590/S1807-59322005000100012.
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Rutters, F., Nieuwenhuizen, A. G., Lemmens, S. G. T., Born, J. M. & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. Acute stress-related changes in eating in the absence of hunger. Obesity (2009) doi:10.1038/oby.2008.493.
Nguyen-Rodriguez, S. T., Unger, J. B. & Spruijt-Metz, D. Psychological determinants of emotional eating in adolescence. Eat. Disord. (2009) doi:10.1080/10640260902848543.
Berk, M. et al. So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC Med. 11, (2013).
Lang, U. E., Beglinger, C., Schweinfurth, N., Walter, M. & Borgwardt, S. Nutritional aspects of depression. Cell. Physiol. Biochem. 37, 1029–1043 (2015).
Sharma, S., Zhuang, Y. & Gomez-Pinilla, F. High-fat diet transition reduces brain DHA levels associated with altered brain plasticity and behaviour. Sci. Rep. (2012) doi:10.1038/srep00431.
Sivanathan, S., Thavartnam, K., Arif, S., Elegino, T. & McGowan, P. O. Chronic high fat feeding increases anxiety-like behaviour and reduces transcript abundance of glucocorticoid signalling genes in the hippocampus of female rats. Behav. Brain Res. (2015) doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2015.02.036.
Matias, T., Dominski, F. H. & Marks, D. F. Human needs in COVID-19 isolation. Journal of Health Psychology (2020) doi:10.1177/1359105320925149.
Volino-Souza, M., Oliveira, G. V. de, Conte-Junior, C. A. & Alvares, T. S. Covid-19 Quarantine: Impact of Lifestyle Behaviors Changes on Endothelial Function and Possible Protective Effect of Beetroot Juice. Front. Nutr. (2020) doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.582210.