- During stressful times, sugar can bring comfort.
- Sugar affects neurotransmitters in the brain.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people with underlying health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, are at increased risk for complications from COVID-19.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
No doubt 2020 has been packed with stress, and for many turning to food is one way to cope.
According to a Ball State University study, 31 percent of the 838 respondents found that the pandemic increased stress, which affected their eating behaviors and decreased their diet quality.
Stress levels were significantly higher for people who reported having unhealthy eating practices and for those whose diet had worsened.
“There’s a concern about stress eating in the context of the pandemic, and some people struggle with eating sugar and junk food as a way to substitute,” Laura Schmidt, PhD, sugar scientist and professor of health policy at the University of California at San Francisco, told Healthline.
While she says there isn’t enough evidence to prove food addiction, Schmidt believes feeling like you’re addicted to food or sugar is valid due to sugar’s effect on the brain.
“One tool we have for studying addiction is a functional MRI that allows researchers to observe what’s going on in the neurochemistry of the brain and this is getting us closer to understanding what people are experiencing when they feel they are addicted to food,” Schmidt said.
She points to past studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which evaluated people’s brains after consuming a lot of sugar.
“[They] noticed a similar kind of reward chemical in the brain, and the most important one is dopamine… In people who are experiencing addiction, the neurotransmitters in their brains have learned that an exogenous chemical is going to come in — whether it’s alcohol or cocaine — and fill their neurotransmitters, so their brain doesn’t need to make as much of that chemical,” she said.
Over time, the brain becomes dependent on outside sources, such as alcohol, drugs, or food, to fill the neurotransmitters. This phenomenon is called dopamine downregulation, and Schmidt says it has been proven to also occur in the brains of people who consume large amounts of sugar.
“When people tell us they feel addicted to sugar, there may be something to that, and it’s something we need to study and understand more,” said Schmidt.
Teralyn Sell, PhD, psychotherapist and brain health expert, says sugar stresses out the brain because it is a dietary stress.
“When we talk about reduction of stress, people often think of work stress and home life stress, but they also have to think of dietary stress, and part of that is sugar because of the way it impacts the brain’s reward center, and because it’s inflammatory, and causes blood sugar dysregulations,” Sell told Healthline.
She says understanding sugar’s effect on blood is essential to understanding why you may reach for sugar when stressed.
Blood sugar (glucose) is the main sugar found in blood. Glucose comes from the foods you consume, and is the body’s main source of energy.
“Most likely when we reach for sugar, it’s to gain energy, but it will spike our blood sugar and then it will sharply fall, leaving you feeling tired or exhausted,” said Sell.
At this point, your adrenaline starts pumping to boost your energy, sending you into fight or flight mode.
“This is when your prefrontal cortex — your thinking brain — will shut off and when you do and say things you wish you wouldn’t have. It’s when you become hangry,” said Sell.
Sugar can impact emotions too, such as loneliness during social distancing, she adds.
“The pandemic has changed our relationship with food because we are so limited in our relationships with other people. Sugar feels comforting, doesn’t it? That big bowl of ice cream can feel like a friend,” Sell said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that adults of any age with certain
Conditions related to diet that put people at increased risk of severe illness include:
- heart conditions
obesity (BMI of 30 kg/m2 or higher but <40 kg/m2) severe obesity (BMI ≥40 kg/m2) type 2 diabetes mellitus
Schmidt says it’s not known why people with metabolic conditions and obesity are at increased risk from COVID-19 complications.
“It’s not clear if it’s the underlying insulin resistance or fatty liver or weight itself. It’s probably all of those things. We know it may be harder to care for people with obesity in a hospital and that being able to breathe freely when you have a lung infection from COVID can be harder when you have obesity,” she said.
Although losing weight is ideal during the pandemic, Schmidt says it can be overwhelming. The good news is that your body can have a quick response when you remove sugar from your diet.
“We know from controlled feeding trials, where we feed people a particular diet and look at their metabolic biomarkers, that within a couple of weeks of going on a no-sugar diet their insulin sensitivity and biomarkers for chronic metabolic disease actually get better,” she said.
According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity in the United States was
“Many people will say there isn’t much that can be done about obesity rates within the context of an infectious disease pandemic, but just taking the sugar out of your diet can potentially lower your risk for severe outcomes if you do get the virus,” Schmidt said.
The American Heart Association recommends that men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day, while women should stick to 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) per day.
To help reach this goal, consider the following ways to cut sugar out of your diet.
By only keeping foods in the kitchen that are healthy and nutritious, you are avoiding triggers for binge eating.
“Along with that is committing to alternate skills that you will do before you go back into the kitchen, whether that’s a bubble bath, watching a movie, or calling a friend,” Carmel told Healthline.
When you do all of those before walking back into the kitchen, she said often times you realize you weren’t hungry in the first place.
Pay attention to when you reach for snacks and be prepared.
“If you’re sitting at the computer, and every day at about 3:00 you’re bored or wanting food, instead of having candy at the computer, pull out frozen grapes,” she said. “Learn the triggers, the places, people, moments that make you want sugar.”
Carmel said research shows that regulated meals help to avoid binge eating.
“There are people I’m treating who are food prepping like they are going to work, and so they have the same food schedule and eating at the same times as they did when life was different,” she said.
She suggests planning out the food you will eat, how you will prepare it, and when you will eat it.
“Try to have meals 3 to 5 hours apart throughout the day,” she said.
Eating protein can keep your blood sugar stable and make you less likely to want sugar for an energy boost, says Sell.
“Eat small amounts of protein every 3 to 4 hours, such as cheese, nuts, some meats, or a little bit of protein collagen, which is simple to mix in things like coffee or tea,” she said.
Premaking protein shakes and storing them in the fridge is another idea.
“We think about smoothies all the time, but when you are fatigued, the last thing you want to do is make a smoothie in a blender. Having a premade protein shake to sip on throughout the day as a snack is convenient,” said Sell.
While a nighttime snack might go well with your favorite show, Sell says it’s the worst thing for your blood sugar.
“Eating carb-loaded or sugar-loaded snacks before you go to sleep causes your blood sugar to sharply rise and fall, and then your adrenaline kicks in and here it is 2:00 in the morning and you’re wide awake because your fight or flight has kicked in,” she said.
If you need something sweet for a nightcap, she suggests eating natural sugar like fruit, and partnering it with cheese or nut butter.
Many times, when you are stress eating, you’re actually looking for nourishment and nurturing, said Carmel.
“I really beg people to address that. In many of my clients, I’ve seen that when they are well connected with people and when they turn to filling their heart before their bellies, it [helps] amazingly,” she said.
The next time your body craves food, she suggests turning to things that nurture and nourish you without the effects of weight gain, such as connecting with people you love, turning to an online community, journaling, or practicing self-care like meditation or exercise.