How to ditch your pandemic diet habits once and for all

COVID-19 has shifted our lives in more ways than we could have ever, pre-pandemic, imagined. From finances, to jobs, to where and how we live and work, to school to parenting — the pandemic has rocked our worlds. It has also shifted how many of us eat. Some of us have picked up a few healthy habits over the past year and half, and others have adopted some unhealthy ones. Negative diet habits developed during the pandemic are associated with other poor lifestyle outcomes including weight gain, mental health issues and limited physical activity. A recent report found that 61% of Americans are trying to break unhealthy habits that arose during this time.

A study from the University of Minnesota Medical School looked at the associations between stress, psychological distress and financial difficulties, and changes in eating behaviors during COVID-19. The findings, which were published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found six key themes of eating behavior changes:

  • Mindless eating and snacking.

  • Increased food consumption.

  • Generalized decrease in appetite or dietary intake.

  • Eating to cope.

  • Pandemic-related reductions in dietary intake.

  • A re-emergence or marked increase in eating disorder symptoms.

Other research shows that weight gain during the pandemic is five times higher than during the holidays.

Have you fallen into a hole of poor pandemic eating habits? As a nutritionist, I help clients deal with many of these issues and have specific advice to help you combat any of these habits. If...

You’re eating mindlessly… Have a set schedule. Mindless eating, eating without intention or regards to hunger, is the opposite of mindful eating. Mindful eating is the thoughtful and intentional practice of eating. Mindful eating allows us to make better food choices, enjoy our food and practice better portion control.

One way to help you curb that mindless eating habit you may have picked up due to the work-from-home life is to create set meal and snack times — and stick to them. Make the kitchen off-limits during hours in between meal and snack time as this can help you reduce the mindless eating calories and also may allow you to become more in touch with listening to your body. And, your boss may be happy because you’ll be more productive and efficient with the structure of set meal times built into your work day.

Related: The first rule of this approach is to reject the diet mentality, but its principles can still support healthy weight management. A dietitian explains how.

You’re eating increased amounts of food... Practice portion control. Figuring out how much you need to eat to reach your goal (or just maintain your weight) is just as important as choosing what to eat.

Your hunger quotient is one of the more difficult concepts to wrap your head around (yes, it takes mental work!) when it comes to healthy eating. Your goal is to always be between a 4 and a 6 on the HQ scale at any given time. On a scale of 1 to 10, 6 is slightly hungry and 4 is slightly satisfied. It may take work, but you can do this, you can learn this, and it eventually becomes easy. It will be one of your greatest nutrition tools in your knowledge base (regardless of the food you eat) and get you closer to the healthy eater you were meant to be.

You are eating emotionally… First, you need to identify triggers leading to emotional eating. Some people don’t realize that emotions are influencing certain eating patterns. Are you having cravings after watching the news? Do you down a bag of chips after every power struggle with your child about doing schoolwork? Are you scrolling through a full email inbox as you eat lunch? Identifying the situations and emotions that trigger this habit is the first step to controlling it.


Once you’ve identified triggers, then it’s time to develop controls for these triggers. In other words, a plan of action to combat them. This is going to look different for every person. I like to think of controls in two ways: food controls and non-food controls. Here is an example of a food control: Instead of going for a bag of chips when your boss stresses you out, you opt for a portion-controlled bag of air-popped popcorn with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. If you're not hungry but feeling the urge to snack, determine a non-food control like FaceTiming a friend or a 5-minute mediation.

Having controls like these can dramatically reduce unwanted outcomes from acting on those triggers. Finding food and non-food related ways to cope will not only support your efforts to maintain healthy eating habits, but will also improve overall health and wellness. It’s a win-win.

You are snacking non-stop... Snack smart. Choosing smart snacks that are high in fiber, protein and healthy fats can actually be a smart part of a weight-loss plan. This way, you’re not sitting down to your main meals feeling ravenous and devouring way more than you had originally planned (been there, regretted that)! Plus, it’s an easy way to add important vitamins and minerals to your diet.

For most adults, one to two snacks per day is a wise way to keep energy levels humming from morning to night.