Louis Awerbuck

During May 2020, the data analysis company Ipsos conducted a large online poll (16,000 individuals) among South Africans. Individuals were asked which psychological difficulties they experienced as a result of Covid-19. 

The results indicated that most people experienced anxiety (31%). Significantly though, is that together with under-exercising, 29% of individuals reported that they indulge in overeating. The prevalence of overeating even exceeded reports of depression or insomnia.

Research indicates that increased mental health issues occur in all pandemics through history.  Unfortunately, the behaviour that stems from psychological responses to the pandemic do not only occur during the pandemic but seems to last for long after.  Overeating appears to be a general drawback of pandemics like Covid-19. It is common for people to eat when they feel stressed. 

This behaviour is also sometimes referred to as “emotional eating”, or “stress eating”.  The action of indulging in tasty food as some kind of “self-soothing”, in order to experience emotional happiness or warmth, is common to humans. However, when indulging in food becomes a permanent coping mechanism, or when the individual cannot control the amount of food intake, it becomes a behavioural problem with several negative consequences.

Louis Awerbuck.

Louis Awerbuck is a Stellenbosch psychiatrist.

One of the obvious consequences of overeating is the increased risk for obesity, with subsequent health-related risks.  There is also a high correlation between obesity and depression, and a very high correlation between overeating and low self-image.

Why do people overeat?

  • Research indicates that women experience more eating problems than men, including overeating. This might be because women seem to be suffering from anxiety and depression more than men, but also because woman are more willing to report overeating. Social stereotypes and expectations related to women and food play a major role. Younger females, between 18 and 34, are mostly inclined to overeat.
  • Boredom. People eat more when they are bored.
  • Stress. Financial pressure, relationship expectations and dealing with life in general can be extremely stressful and can lead to self-soothing via food.
  • Psychological difficulties like depression, struggling with self-image and social anxiety are associated with overeating.

If overeating is impacting your work, health or relationship/s it might be a good idea to attempt gaining control over food intake by trying the following:

  • Make sure that you recognise your emotions before you start eating anything. For example, check with yourself whether you are happy, sad, bored, etc. before you take the first bite.
  • Limit your immediate options by not stocking unnecessary food (especially unhealthy food) at home where it is easily accessible.
  • Try preparing as much of your own meals as possible.
  • Do not stop eating or restrict eating altogether. Restriction eating leads to the body storing fat. Rather eat regularly, but smaller portions.
  • Try to be as physically active as possible.
  • Limit sugar, including food and drinks that contain sugar.

If you struggle to implement control over your food intake, professional help in the form of a psychologist with experience in eating disorders have proven to be effective in most cases.