Can't control your snacking? Covid-19 may be to blame for your food cravings

03 September 2020 - 00:00
By Sanet Oberholzer
Stress can result in you craving comfort foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates.
Image: 123RF/Vasyl Dolmatov Stress can result in you craving comfort foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates.

If you’re someone who normally eats quite healthily but have found yourself diving into comfort food and bags of sweets during lockdown, you’re not alone. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic might be to blame — at least in part — for your cravings.

“I’ve never had a particular penchant for Mars Bars — I love 80% dark chocolate and that is my norm. But for some reason in early lockdown a Mars Bar shouted at me from the shelf and it didn’t stop for the next couple of months. I have gone from buying one Mars Bar to buying 10 to buying three packets of mini-Mars Bars at a time,” says Philippa Bramwell-Jones, registered dietitian and owner of Intuitive Nutrition in Parktown North.

“Berating myself for it is a complete waste of time. I’m human. I’m going through a significantly stressful period,” Bramwell-Jones adds, saying she has chosen not to over-think her Mars Bar obsession but is spending her time focusing on how she can calm down her body’s stress response.

“A global pandemic of Covid-19 proportions is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (fingers crossed). None of us has experienced anything similar that may have prepared us for it. It is a period of complete uncertainty, fear and confusion,” she says, adding that this kind of stress can have a number of effects on our bodies, both physiologically and psychologically.


Registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in SA, Lila Bruk, says the lockdown may have led to many people experiencing strong cravings for foods they generally try to avoid. One of the main causes of these cravings, she says, is the effects of chemicals, or neurotransmitters, in the brain such as dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid and serotonin.

An imbalance in dopamine has been linked to obesity and blood sugar irregularities, while an imbalance in gamma-aminobutyric acid can lead to insomnia and carbohydrate cravings. A serotonin imbalance can lead to weight gain, depression, carbohydrate cravings and salt cravings.

“The effect of stress, lack of sunlight, lack of physical activity, poor diet and lack of sleep can all contribute to neurotransmitter imbalances,” Bruk says. “All of these factors have been very relevant during this lockdown and thus helps to explain why cravings have increased during this time.”

Bramwell-Jones says that some studies have shown that physical or emotional distress can increase the intake of food high in fat, sugar or both.

Once eaten, fat and sugary foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress-related responses and emotions. These foods are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods.

“Of course, overeating isn't the only stress-related behaviour that can result in weight gain. When we are stressed, we don’t sleep as well which means we are more tired and will exercise less. We drink more caffeine and sugar to keep our energy levels up. And then there’s booze, which we feel we need to relax, which effects hunger, motivation and sleep. And the cycle repeats,” adds Bramwell-Jones.

There are, of course, other contributing factors to cravings during lockdown, including boredom, easier access to food while being at home and even people’s keen interest in baking that developed during the initial stages of being housebound.


Bruk’s advice to manage cravings is to get enough sleep, get outside into the fresh air and sunlight every day, eat a healthy balanced diet rich in brain-boosting omega 3 fatty acids and fresh fruits and vegetables, get regular exercise and try to find other activities to do at home that don’t involve food.

Bramwell-Jones agrees and says her process for calming down her body’s stress response is all about finding balance. “Each of us will have our own unique experience [of the pandemic]. I personally do not say that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ experience. They are all just our own unique experiences. They make us human.”