The Sweet Psychology of Indulging During a Pandemic

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The pandemic has ushered in an era of relentless challenges, from everyday inconveniences to unimaginable pain and hardship. But not for the processed food industry. The titans of that sector are salivating over their great good fortune.

Processed foods include all sorts of treats we are not supposed to eat: Sweet things and salty things, packaged for convenience and designed for a long shelf life and maximum irresistibility. Things like grocery store cookies and cakes, canned soups and breakfast cereals and frozen waffles. And chips. Lots and lots of chips. Sales of those kinds of foods are surging. 

Cooped up Americans are copping to their new bad habits. In a survey conducted in April, one in four adults admitted that they have been eating more sugary and salty treats. More people seem to be baking their own sweet indulgences. Maybe that’s not so bad since home bakers rarely add ingredients such as preservatives or unpronounceable chemicals. But suppose you bake a cake and then eat the whole thing? 

Screw it. That seems to be the attitude of some of the people in my social media feeds, who are not just admitting to their indulgences, but flaunting them. 

“I baked a cake,” tweeted bestselling author Roxane Gay, atop a picture fit for a foodie magazine; “It’s a lemon thyme vanilla bean ricotta cake.” Within days, it had more than 26,000 likes. 

One of Gay’s bestsellers is Hunger, a brilliant book that most decidedly does not end with a newly slimmed-down author who has triumphed over her pangs. Hunger has just been sent back for a seventh printing.

Maybe the pandemic slogan is “Down with Diets!” According to Google Trends, searches for terms such as “weight loss diets” plummeted in March and April. 

Should we be beating ourselves up over letting ourselves go? 

I knew just who to approach for an answer — University of Minnesota Professor Traci Mann, one of the foremost scientists of eating. I had already read her terrific book, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, so I knew she was not going to give anyone a hard time for setting aside their searches for the latest fad diets. In Secrets, she said, “Diets interfere with your thinking ability, lead to obsessive food thoughts, and cause stress, which leads to increases in your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” And in high doses, she explained, “cortisol can cause a multitude of problems, as well as lead to weight regain.”

Instead of imploring us to diet, Dr. Mann instead offered scientifically established ways of rearranging our environments so we don’t have to depend so much on the great willpower that frankly, none of us has. It is possible, she told us, to find less self-defeating ways to live a healthy life. 

So what about all our pandemic-triggered indulgences? Here’s what she told me:

“It does seem like people are treating themselves more, and also perhaps gaining weight. Given how limited other pleasant things are right now, I don’t find this particularly surprising, and it is not a disaster, nor is it anything to feel guilty about. We are dealing with a terrifying pandemic, financial concerns, loneliness, and much uncertainty. Being home so much makes it all too easy to become sedentary. So I suggest prioritizing physical activity and trying not to worry too much about a slight increase in eating sweets. And if possible, try to add some vegetables to your routine.” 

The dietician Melissa Nieves told The Washington Post something similar. She thinks people are indulging in more baking, with less shame. And that, she believes, is a good thing. Food guilt never did anyone any good. 

No one is suggesting that we should eat cake for dinner every evening. And as it turns out, that’s not what we’re doing. The other half of the story of pandemic eating — maybe more than half — is what we are doing right. 

The same survey that found that about 25% of adults have been eating more salty and sugary treats also discovered that even more people, 33%, have been eating in healthier ways. An impressive 60% of adults said that they were cooking more of their meals from scratch. Shoppers are not just stocking up on Doritos and Oreos; they are also buying dried beans and lentils.

Americans are taking time to look up from their plates. What they are seeing are long lines at food banks. Some of the privileged people who have no need to line up that way are doing what they can to spare others. Some are growing food and donating it, or preparing food or delivering it to those in need, or making monetary contributions. 

It is dawning on us that our food does not just magically end up on our plates. We understand that workers at meat-processing plants are getting infected with the coronavirus at alarming rates. We realize that drivers are putting themselves at risk to transport food to our stores. We know who is “essential” these days — the workers in the supermarkets stocking shelves and ringing up our orders. 

We are seeing each other in new and more humanizing ways. We see the local farmers and gardeners and bread-bakers. We’re putting our names in for those boxes of organic produce delivered every week or every month. We’re stopping at food carts along the sides of our roads. We’re picking up bread from front porches. 

What a sweet, ironic twist it would be if the pandemic that mandated that we stay apart inspired ways of bringing us together

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