Mary Klement, a 48-year-old teacher from Westbrook, is unapologetic about all the lasagna and chocolate cake she’s eaten over the past month. There will be no food shaming in her house during this pandemic.

After all, she says, walking into the grocery store and seeing empty shelves triggers the human survival instinct, the one that tells you, “Whoa, get your belly full. That’s how we operate. We can’t escape that primal instinct.”

Homemade chocolate cake is one of the splurges Mary Klement and her husband have enjoyed since being confined to their home in Westbrook. Photo courtesy of Mary Klement

At least, she said, laughing, “That’s what I tell myself when I’m making chocolate cake with Nutella butter cream frosting. It’s just totally survival. I need to do this.”

Homebound Mainers are changing their eating habits, some for the worse and some for the better, as they struggle with social isolation and the threat of COVID-19. We tapped into social media to find out how they are coping. While some are losing weight for a variety of reasons – lost appetite, more time to plan meals, no more daily Starbucks runs – many more that we heard from are packing on a few pounds as they use food for comfort; one woman confessed on Facebook that she eats a bowl of ice cream every time she watches a press conference.

Debbie Pepper-Dougherty, a registered dietician and founder of DPD Nutrition Consultants in Cumberland Foreside, said “Some people are emotionally eating because of the unknown.”

The common denominator is stress. Food and stress go together like peas and carrots.

Nationally, Americans have been stocking their pantries with junk food. Bloomberg, citing Nielsen data, recently reported that by mid-March, potato chips sales were up 30 percent, popcorn sales up 48 percent. Demand was high for shelf-stable foods, including boxed macaroni and cheese.

Online, hashtags and memes about fear of weight gain abound. Remember when you went off to college and your mother warned you about the Freshman 15? On social media, that spare tire is now being referred to as the Quarantine 15.

Pandemic pounds

At Klement’s home, every day includes Sunday dinner.

“Lasagna used to be a treat,” she said. “I’m making a lasagna (once) a week now.”

Before COVID-19, Klement and her husband spent every weekend prepping food for the week as a way to control calories and portion size. Their splurge was to eat a sandwich made with “decent bread.”

Before the pandemic, Mary Klement and her husband prepped weekday meals ahead so they could control calories and portion size. Photo courtesy of Mary Klement

Now, every week Klement bakes cookies, cakes and pies. She frequently puts together a big plate of nachos for her stressed-out 18-year-old son, who is graduating high school this year and bummed about not spending time with his friends.

“We’re totally out of whack,” Klement said. “We can eat what we want, when we want, now. It’s a comfort thing. It’s a coping mechanism.”

It’s a coping mechanism with consequences. Klement has gained eight pounds since March 17.

“It’s a very stressful time,” said Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. “People are going to seek food, and food is certainly better than alcohol or other vices. But you do feel more tired and worn out when you gain weight, and so people might want to plan their snacks and treats, and spread them out a little bit more.

“Facebook is full of people showing what they baked,” she continued. “Well, do you need that whole 9 x 13 pan of brownies? Could you freeze some of them to save for a day when you don’t have brownies, and take some of that temptation away?”

For Alex Steed, the 37-year-old co-founder of the Knack Factory, a creative agency, the pandemic shutdown shifted his perception of time and how often he was eating. The resulting changes in his eating habits almost landed him in the hospital.

“Our diets are built around a regular timeline,” Steed said, “and nothing more irregular has ever happened in our lives.”

Steed, who grew up in Cornish, moved to Nashville not long ago to open a new office. He was back in Maine on a short visit when the coronavirus stranded him, so now he’s riding out the stay-at-home orders in a friend’s apartment in Portland.

Steed said the stress of the virus and its impact on his business stripped away his discipline and changed how much and how often he was eating. He bought a couple of pounds of scallops to support local fishermen, then kept eating them, meal after meal, until they were gone. He ate leftover cake for breakfast. The change in his eating habits led to severe gastrointestinal issues; the pain was so bad he couldn’t get out of bed for 36 hours. “I thought my appendix was bursting,” he said. “I thought ‘Oh, I’ll have to go to the ER and I’ll get COVID at the ER.”

Instead, he arranged a Zoom call with his doctor. It turns out Steed’s problems were triggered by diet and stress. He’s come to realize his body prefers more consistency in the amount and kinds of foods he eats. He’s now more diligent about eating fruits and vegetables.

“What are rules anymore?” he pondered. “Well, apparently rules are not just social mores. They’ll help keep your body from shutting down.”

Pepper-Dougherty said losing track of time is a common side effect of staying at home for long periods. She suggests arranging daily check-ins with friends and family – “daytime meal buddies” – to stay on track with regular meals.

Steed’s story also illustrates the important of balance, a concept that Pepper-Dougherty has been preaching to her clients.

“It’s important to cut yourself a little slack,” she said. “However, I’m really trying to encourage people to use this time to get caught up on their sleep so they’re rested and keep their immune system strong, and find ways to incorporate vegetables (into their diets), and to move their bodies.”

Strike a balance

Balance is especially important to people like Joy Sinclair, a 38-year-old from Brewer who works in marketing for the University of Maine. Sinclair had an eating disorder in high school, so thinking too much about food can be dangerous. She’s committed herself to a daily 3-mile walk after finishing work in her home office. She also does yoga to help control anxiety.

“That has helped a lot because it’s keeping me out of that mind space where I’m constantly worried about “Oh, I’m eating too much,’” she said.

When Joy Sinclair of Brewer wants to splurge, she and her husband grill pizza outside. Photo courtesy of Joy Sinclair

Sinclair allows herself one day a week to eat whatever she wants, dishes like American chop suey, pasta loaded with vegetables, or grilled pizza. If she’s feeling “snacky” on her treat day, she’ll stick to individual snack packs to help control portions. It’s not a perfect system. Sinclair’s husband recently brought home ice cream and she ate four bowls within a week. Still, she hasn’t gained any weight.

“Struggling with denying yourself things when you’re stuck at home and in this weird situation, that’s not healthy,” Sinclair said.

Pre-pandemic, Judy Berk and her husband, David Foley, had a healthier diet than most. They grow three-quarters of the vegetables they eat on a half-acre of their Northport homestead. They raise free-range chickens, and make hard and sweet cider from the apples in their orchard. The couple doesn’t follow any particular dietary regime, but they try not to eat too many potatoes or too much bread or sugar. For exercise, they often hike in the Camden Hills.

“We cook at home most nights,” Berk said, “and we try to make interesting meals out of the foods that we grow.”

Then came the pandemic. Or, as Berk calls it, Carbogeddon.

The comfort eating began with some loaves of zucchini bread she made last summer and had stored in the freezer. Then she made a coffee cake one morning for breakfast. She took last year’s rhubarb from the freezer and baked a rhubarb upside down cake. Occasionally, Berk nibbles on chocolate chips right out of the bag.

For dinners, she’s made burgers with cannellini beans, squash-ginger soup, lots of onion soups, black bean chili, and a dish with winter squash and sweet potatoes. The couple has also been drinking a lot of their sweet cider.

“All these things may or may not be what you consider unhealthy,” she said, “but to us, they’re treat foods and sweet foods and rich foods.”
The stress of the pandemic combined with other stressors – a postponed surgery, a huge snowstorm, a power outage, a gale – sent her into Carbogeddon territory. She has gained four pounds.

“It’s like layers and layers of stress. I’m not shy to say I rely on comfort food to make me feel more comfortable when I’m stressed out. I know that’s not a particularly great thing to do, but I do it. I’m not going to be hard on myself.”

That kind of compassion and self care are what we need during these extraordinary times, our nutrition experts said. Don’t go wild, but be gentle with yourself, too, if you overdo it once in a while.

“It’s good to eat healthy for your immune system, but also give yourself a break and don’t food shame,” Pepper-Dougherty said. “Do what you can.”

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RHUBARB UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

Judy Berk says she uses brown sugar rather than granulated white with both the fruit and the batter. She also substitutes whole wheat flour for some of the all-purpose flour, and adds ground cinnamon. The recipe comes from tasteofhome.com.

Serves 10

FOR THE FRUIT:
3 cups sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup butter, melted

FOR THE BATTER:
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup 2% milk

Sweetened whipped cream, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the rhubarb in a greased 10-inch cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof skillet. Combine sugar, flour and nutmeg; sprinkle over rhubarb. Drizzle with butter; set aside.

To make the batter, beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl until blended. Beat in the egg. Combine the flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Gradually add to egg mixture alternately with milk, beating well after each addition.

Spread the batter over the rhubarb mixture in the pan. Bake in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Loosen the edges of the cake immediately and invert onto a serving dish. Serve warm, with whipped cream if you like.

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