Researcher addresses ‘COVID Calorie Count’ that’s climbing under lockdown

Research underway to explore how motivation and environment can trigger over-eating could be relevant to growing numbers of Victorians accumulating ‘COVID calories’ under lockdown, says head of the University of Notre Dame’s Melbourne Clinical School, Professor Moyez Jiwa, who is leading the study.

His research will examine the effectiveness of a digital tool called the Future Me App, which reminds people to think about what – and why – they are eating and encourages them to be motivated by an avatar of their future, healthier self.

The two-year study is a collaboration between the University of Notre Dame Australia, Archetype Health, Werribee Hospital Foundation, Mercy Hospitals Victoria and the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (Digital Health CRC).

“In lockdown, many people are working from their dining room or kitchen table – a place their brains associate with mealtimes – while others in their home may be eating around them,” he says.

“We are often ‘triggered’ by the smell and sight of food, which can be a big feature of the home environment, whether through endless cups of tea and coffee with snacks, or with bored children normally at school in and out of the fridge or pantry, lobbying parents for an edible treat.”

These all add up to temptations to consume food and drinks through boredom rather than because we are actually hungry, he says.

The lockdown and its associated lack of formal exercise opportunities has coincided with cold weather, a rise in home baking and cooking, and continued access to alcohol, with bottle shops doing a roaring trade during lockdown, he adds.

We are also now working in our comfortable at-home attire so we hardly notice as the elastic on those track pants starts to stretch under the strain of an expanding waistline.

Professor Jiwa says it’s likely that many people will have put on a kilo or more by the time lockdown ends, often through a daily “fourth meal” where snacks make up as many calories as a full meal.

“Snacks are calories that we consume outside ‘meal time’ and are often eaten at our desk, in the car, at the computer, in front of the television – anywhere where we aren’t mainly focused on the nature of what we are eating, and where food is secondary to whatever else is going on at the time.”

Professor Jiwa says that addressing over-eating habits can begin when we recognise when we are eating for reasons other than hunger.

“People often eat because they are distressed, bored, dissatisfied, cold, tired, unhappy or worried,” he says.

Tackling overeating should occur when you are ready, he adds, as it’s important to acknowledge the reasons before trying to tackle a problem that might add to anxiety.

“People may already be anxious or worried about their job or their mortgage, their children or their parents. We call that ‘tunnelling’ in science – and people who are ‘tunnelling’ often can’t see the wood for the trees and are not ready to make sacrifices to change outcomes. There is only so much bandwidth available to most of us.”

Although the lockdown has slowed recruitment for the study, the research team will shortly run a survey about people’s food literacy and their understanding of the calories in the food they consume.

“This study can help us find more effective ways to assist the 67 per cent of Australians who are obese or overweight, which is linked to many chronic diseases,” says Dr Michael Costello who is interim CEO of the Digital Health CRC.

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