What ‘anxiety baking’ says about socioeconomics and a poor diet

Normally I devote this blog to kid-specific food issues, but something has been bugging me for a few weeks now, and I feel the need to vent. I hope you’ll indulge me, and that you’ll also share this post if it resonates with you. Here’s what’s been on my mind.

In this very anxious moment, we Americans are clearly finding solace in the warm embrace of “comfort food.”

We’re doing so much “stress baking” that grocery stores are selling out of flour and yeast, while sales of potato chips, cookies, popcorn, pretzels, and candy are booming. Only yesterday, the New York Times published a story titled “ ‘I Just Need the Comfort’: Processed Foods Make a Pandemic Comeback.” And when a Food Network judge recently joked that by day four of quarantine, he was pouring ice cream directly onto his pasta, over 23,000 people liked his tweet, with many confessing their own stress-driven food transgressions — everything from tortilla-wrapped, chocolate-glazed bacon to lunches of pecan pie.

Ironically, we really ought to be eating an especially healthy diet right now, as some experts urge, to boost our immunity. But in the middle of a global pandemic, it feels almost comically tone deaf to tell people to consume more kale and turmeric.

Maybe that’s why other nutrition experts have loosened the reins. A respected pediatric dietitian recently wrote, “[I]n our present situation, I’m releasing the idea of having perfect balanced meals and healthy snacks all the time. Truth be told, I’ve got plenty of chips, cheesy crackers, and cookies in my pantry right now. I even ate two homemade chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.” In answering the question “Is it OK for my kids to eat nothing but mac and cheese right now?,” Virginia Sole-Smith, the child-feeding expert for the New York Timesresponded: “Emphatically, yes. Give yourself permission to enjoy all the carbs, too, if you’re so inclined.”

Comfort food is having its moment because all of us, even those with relative means, are feeling decidedly uncomfortable right now. Putting aside the threat of a deadly virus, millions are now facing job insecurity or actual job losses. College and retirement accounts are dwindling alarmingly. Those who still have jobs are struggling to work remotely, usually without childcare. Apartments and homes that once seemed reasonably spacious now feel stifling, with every family member sheltering in place. And even those with decent health insurance must ask for the first time: If someone in my family gets seriously sick or injured, will our hospital even let us in the door?

It’s enough to make anyone snarf down cookie dough, and not just because we associate delicious food with happier times. As I learned in researching Kid Food, chronic stress can trigger unhealthy eating on a biological level. Cortisol, the stress hormone, not only increases our appetite overall, it contributes to specific cravings for unhealthy foods loaded with fat and/or sugar. Sleeplessness, too, has been found to stoke our appetites, while also elevating our levels of endocannabinoid — a neurotransmitter chemically similar to the compounds in marijuana that give smokers “the munchies.” A recent study found that sleep-deprived subjects (and doesn’t that describe all of us these days?) were particularly unable to resist hyper-palatable foods like Doritos, Cheetos, and ice cream.

The only silver lining is that no one is judging our questionable food choices right now. If a PBJ on white bread is all you can muster for your kids’ dinner, you’ve been absolved: “Parenting and self-care need to look different right now, and we have to be OK with lowering some of the bars,” a dietitian told the Times. “If you’re “fattening the curves” by gaining “the COVID 19,” don’t beat yourself up. “Weight fluctuations are an entirely normal response to our lives being very different right now,” soothes a health and beauty influencer.

In a society that engages in its share of weight shaming and competitive parenting, I applaud this newly forgiving, just-do-the-best-you-can spirit. But there’s also an implicit understanding that once this crisis is over, we’ll put away our Bundt pans and get our act together. “[P]ost-pandemic, we’ll see the return of running clubs and crowded gyms,” the Chicago Tribune predicts. “There will be plenty of time to shrink muffin tops and get back to sensible eating.”

And this brings me to the crux of what has me so agitated: the inherent class bias at work.

Because for millions of low-income Americans, there won’t be any return to the gym, the running club, or sensible eating. Not only do these families typically have less access to healthier food and safe spaces for exercise, they were already enduring the very same pressures now driving more affluent Americans to overeat unhealthy food: job insecurity, cramped living spaces, poorer sleep, a dearth of childcare, and lack of assured access to medical care.

So when Sole-Smith compassionately advises in the Times, “A global pandemic is not the time to … pressure yourself to control your weight,” all I can think is: If crushing stress was the hallmark of your daily life even before the pandemic, when exactly is a good time to focus on healthy eating and exercise?

America’s poor diet is the leading cause of poor health and is responsible for more than half a million deaths per year. And if our current comfort food bender demonstrates anything, it’s that when people’s sense of security is fundamentally threatened, they’re very often compelled to seek relief and pleasure in unhealthy food.

But without a reasonable living wage, affordable housing, reliable childcare, and accessible healthcare, huge swaths of Americans never had that sense of security in the first place. So how can we realistically expect them to find the time, resources, and mental space to truly take care of themselves?

We don’t know what this country will look like when the pandemic recedes, but I’d like to think that after enduring months of isolation and collectively facing a once-in-a-century-level threat, we might emerge with a new sense of solidarity and kinship with our fellow Americans. We might even be more accepting of social policies that are compassionate instead of punitive.

It’s a tall order in this fractured political climate, I know. But we could at least have a chance if more affluent Americans never forget what it felt like when their family’s fate was out of their control, when crushing stress kept them awake at night, and when they found a moment’s solace in a handful of cookies or a bowl of ice cream.

Bettina Elias Siegel blogs at The Lunch Tray, where this piece originally appeared, and is the author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World.