Why COVID-19 Is Causing You to Eat Your Feelings

Anna Amelianchik

In the past few weeks, as the world has been struggling to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing requirements and the fear and anxiety brought on by the disease has changed our relationship with food. Shortly after Governor Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order for New York State, New Yorkers crowded grocery stores to stock up on pantry items like beans and pasta, swapped takeout for home-cooked meals, and went on baking frenzies worthy of their own Netflix show. In addition, stress and anxiety induced changes in our eating habits, leading some people to overeat and others to decrease their food intake. If you have recently found yourself snacking more than usual and gorging on calorie-dense foods, you are not alone.

Francois, the sourdough starter. (Photo courtesy of Polina Freitas Instagram: @ilisiel)

High-intensity, acute emotional states that promote the fight-or-flight response (e.g. extreme fear) suppress appetite and food intake. This neat evolutional perk ensured the survival of our species. However, in the case of moderate stress, about 40% of people actually respond by increasing their food intake. This behavior, often referred to as “emotional eating,” also causes some of us to reach for energy-dense and highly palatable foods, such as chocolate, sweet and savory pastries, pizza, burgers, French fries, and sausages. Emotional eating is understood to be a coping strategy that provides short-term relief from stress and negative emotions. However, a temporary improvement in mood can be followed by other negative emotions, such as feelings of guilt. In addition, emotional eating can lead to weight gain. If you identify as an emotional eater, there might be several reasons why you respond to stress by increasing the consumption of sugary and fatty foods: 

Serial dieting. Our bodies are unable to distinguish between self-imposed food restriction and real food shortages. Therefore, the body responds to dieting the same way it would respond to starvation: by slowing down the metabolic rate and increasing hunger and appetite. This often causes dieters to abandon their restrictions, particularly under stress. Therefore, dieting is considered to be a risk factor for the development of emotional eating. 

Poor interoceptive awareness. Some people are prone to confusing stress-related physiological responses with hunger—a phenomenon known as poor interoceptive awareness. This can be the result of inadequate emotion regulation strategies (e.g. suppression of emotions or avoidance of stress by distraction) and can lead to emotional eating. Interestingly, poor interoceptive awareness can develop as a result of damaging parental practices, such as neglectful, overly protective, manipulative, or hostile behaviors. 

Inadequate sleep. While not everyone changes their eating behaviors in stressful situations, almost everyone will attest to the fact that stress can interfere with sleep. In turn, poor sleep can lead to emotional eating by interfering with neurobiological, behavioral, and cognitive processes that regulate emotional responses. Moreover, emotional eating can lead to increased weight gain in short sleepers, i.e. people who habitually sleep less six hours a night, compared to long sleepers.

History of trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as childhood and adult trauma exposure are associated with emotional eating. One possible mechanism underlying emotional eating in individuals with a history of trauma is the hypo-activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. Under stressful conditions, the HPA axis coordinates a neuroendocrine response that is thought to promote survival. However, a history of trauma might decrease HPA axis responses to stress and as a result, erase the typical post-stress reduction in hunger. 

Genetic susceptibility. The prevalence of emotional eating among children is very low, as emotional eating most commonly emerges in the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Additionally, both genetic and environmental factors play an important role in the development of emotional eating. For example, one study reported that a mutation in the dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2) gene predicted emotional eating in adolescents, but only if they also experienced inadequate parenting, such as high psychological control (e.g. “My father (mother) makes me feel guilty when I fail at school.”). In addition, a mutation in the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene can lead to emotional eating in adolescents, but only if the mutation co-occurs with depressive feelings. Both studies highlight the importance of genetics in the regulation of eating behaviors under stress, but indicate that it’s both nature and nurture that lead some people to turn to food in an attempt to self-medicate. 

Depression. Depression is typically characterized by a loss of appetite and weight loss. However, a significant 15-29% of depressed patients suffer from so-called “atypical depression,” which causes increased appetite and subsequent weight gain. These symptoms of atypical depression have a stronger association with emotional eating than other individual depression symptoms, linking depression to obesity. 

If you are worried about the long-term consequences of emotional eating, consider talking to a healthcare professional who can recommend strategies to minimize it. Studies show that such strategies might involve any of the following:

  • Incorporating moderate intensity unstructured exercise (e.g. long walks) and/or high-intensity structured exercise (e.g. running or interval training)
  • Meditating
  • Finding social support
  • Implementing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Establishing healthy, balanced dietary choices early on in the day
  • Using mindful eating habits (e.g. paying attention to hunger and satiety cues while eating)
  • Avoiding trigger foods (e.g. not buying foods you are likely to consume in response to stress)

Good for Your Waist – Good for the Environment

Anna Amelianchik and Glenis George-Alexander

Veganuary is long over, and you may need a little push to continue to reduce your meat consumption. Sustainability science is here to help. A recent study published by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota considered the health and environmental impacts of fifteen food groups, including chicken, fish, and processed and unprocessed red meat. First, they evaluated the impact of these foods on people with type II diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and colorectal cancer, and then compared it to the average risk of each of these diseases. In addition, the study looked at the overall risk of mortality associated with different food groups. The researchers also considered environmental impacts of producing one serving of each food group on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and two different forms of nutrient pollution.

Unsurprisingly, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil reduced the risk of one or more diseases and mortality. However, it turns out that good news for your waist means good news for the planet as well: the same foods that improve your health and help you live longer also have a lower average environmental impact. In contrast, processed and unprocessed red meat is associated with an increased risk for all four diseases included in this analysis. An additional serving (about 100 grams, or 3-4 ounces) of red meat per day also increases overall mortality. And if burgers and steaks seem worth it when it comes to your own health, consider the health of the environment. Producing a single serving of unprocessed red meat has nearly double the environmental impact of producing dairy, nuts, olive oil, and even processed red meat (because of the smaller serving size). In fact, the environmental impact of producing a serving of unprocessed or processed red meat is ten to one hundred times larger than that of plant-based foods. This translates to increased land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water acidification and eutrophication (a dream come true for algae, but bad for the rest of us). Overall, foods associated with an increase in disease risk and mortality (unprocessed and processed red meat) also have the highest environmental impact, which adds (vegan) brownie points to a plant-based lifestyle.

Not ready to go full vegan? Good news: scientific research found no negative health outcomes associated with the consumption of dairy, egg, and chicken. The negative effect of these foods on the environment, although highly variable, is also lower than that of red meat. Although it is difficult to estimate how consumption of fish impacts the environment since production methods vary greatly, fish has widely been praised as a health food. Research suggests that in order to avoid further damaging the environment with greenhouse gas emissions, we should avoid consuming fish farmed in bottom trawling fisheries and recirculating aquaculture systems.

Reducing the consumption of red meat and opting for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and olive oil has multiple health and environmental benefits. However, before you cut all animal-based products from your diet, consider the nutritional composition of the foods that you would consume to beat your meat habit. For example, one serving of red meat contains 23-28 grams of protein and one serving of chicken—19 grams of protein. Protein is an important macronutrient needed to build and repair body tissues, muscles, and organs, which also helps combat infections and illnesses. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein varies depending on the age and sex of the person. For example, a female aged 31-51 years needs 46 grams of protein per day, while a male of the same age needs 56 grams. Therefore, about half of the recommended daily protein intake for an average sedentary man or woman can come from a single serving of meat. This means that if you choose to not eat meat, you need to select plant-based foods that can fill the nutritional void left by its absence from your diet.

Fortunately, protein can be obtained from plants as well as animals. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that a plant-based diet can be nutritionally adequate and provide healthful benefits for preventing and treating certain diseases. Keep in mind that non-animal sources of protein or plant-based proteins may lack some of the essential amino acids (organic compounds that cannot be made by the body). However, one can get all the essential amino acids by consuming a variety of plant-based protein foods throughout the day. In addition to including a variety of plant-based sources of protein in the diet, one can also consume slightly more protein than the RDA, which would make up for the lack of the essential amino acid lysine in plants.

The guide below will help you identify plant-based foods that can fulfill your nutritional goals while lowering your impact on the environment (and helping you lead a healthier and longer life!). Some of the best plant-based protein sources are:

  • Quinoa: Quinoa is an “ancient grain” that is eaten as a starch but is actually a seed. Quinoa is a complete protein that has all the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce.

One serving of cooked quinoa (1/4 cup): 6 grams of protein.

  • Soybeans & soy products: Soybean is a legume that originated in East Asia and is now widely consumed throughout the United States. Soy is also an excellent source of complete protein.

One serving of steamed soybeans (1/2 cup): 4 grams of protein.

One serving of tofu (1/2 cup): 6 grams of protein.

One serving of soy milk (1 cup): 7 grams of protein.

One serving of edamame (1cup): 8 grams of protein.

  • Hummus: Hummus is a thick paste or spread that originated in the Middle East and is usually served with bread or vegetables. This dish is a complete protein when made with garbanzo beans and tahini.

One serving of hummus (1 tablespoon): 1.1 grams of protein.

Note: Some other plant-based high protein foods are beans (black, kidney, lima, pinto, snap peas, lentils, split peas, and chickpeas), nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, and pistachios), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, hemp, chia, and amaranth), seaweed, spirulina, potatoes, and spinach.

And for Dessert…

Aileen Marshall

New York cheesecake, by sabotrax via Wikicommons

A plain New York-style cheesecake, by Dllu via Wikicommons

When you think of an iconic New York City dessert, most people think of cheesecake. Some form of cheesecake has been around for thousands of years, with many countries having their own style or flair. Not everyone agrees on how the New York City style originated, evolving to have a cream cheese base and a graham cracker crust, which makes it rich, smooth, and creamy.

The earliest cheesecake, known as “libum,” was created in Greece on the island of Samos. Archeologists have dated cheesecake pans from Greece to around 2000 B.C. It is said that cheesecake was fed to the first Olympians in 776 B.C. to give them strength. The first recorded recipe appears in De Agricultura around 234 B.C., written by historian and senator Marcus Porcius Cato. The recipe calls for pounding cheese until it is smooth, adding honey and wheat flour, and then baking it. When Rome conquered Greece in the second century B.C., they discovered this cheesecake and spread it throughout the rest of the Roman Empire.

Over the centuries, many countries developed their own type of cheesecake. Regional versions vary based on ingredients, textures, and setting by refrigeration or baking. Italian cheesecake is made with ricotta cheese. French cheesecake is known for its very light consistency, using Neufchâtel cheese and gelatin.  In the British Isles, crushed biscuits make up the base, and the cheesecake is topped with a variety of fruit compotes. Grecians today use Mizithra, cheese made from sheep’s milk and whey, or feta. German cheesecake has a pastry dough base and uses quark, a fresh cheese made from curdled sour milk, similar to cottage cheese. Japanese cheesecake uses cornstarch and eggs and has a more cake-like texture. Indian cheesecake is known as chhena poda and is made from cottage cheese, sugar, and nuts.

The type of cheesecakes we are familiar with in the United States are technically custards, not cakes. The New York style of cheesecake is based on cream cheese, has a crushed graham cracker base, and is served pure, without any flavorings or toppings. It is known for being very creamy but not too heavy.  In Chicago you will find a sour cream based cheesecake that is soft on the inside, with a shortbread crust. Saint Louis’s cheesecake is made from butter with a layer of cake on top. California style cheesecake has a light texture with lemon flavoring, a cookie crumb crust, and sour cream topping.

Cheesecake was brought to this country by European immigrants starting in the eighteenth century. At that point, Europeans had started adding eggs instead of yeast to their recipes, giving cheesecake the consistency we know today. In 1872, William Lawrence, a dairy farmer from Chester, New York, tried to make the French-style Neufchâtel cheese. While trying to copy this milk-based cheese, William Lawrence added cream instead of milk, and came up with a denser and creamier form, which he dubbed cream cheese. A grocery distributor sold it for Lawrence in foil wrappers. It was eventually bought by the Kraft Company and has been sold as Philadelphia Cream Cheese since 1928.

It was the invention of cream cheese that allowed the New York style cheesecake to originate. While sources say that it is based on the Eastern European style, another claim to the origin is from our old friend Arnold Reuben, of the reuben sandwich fame. He claimed that he had a cheese pie at a friend’s house one day and was so enamored with it he that took his hostess’ recipe and worked with his chef to develop what we know as the New York style cheesecake. It was sold at his Turf Restaurant on 49th Street and Broadway in the 1930s. This type of cheesecake then appeared at the famous Lindy’s Broadway restaurant in the 1940s. Tales say that Lindy got it from a chef he hired from Reuben’s.

Yet another claim to the origin of New York style cheesecake is from the famous Junior’s restaurant. The original owner, Harry Rosen, had a restaurant called Enduro Cafe at the flagship site on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn since 1929. In 1950, he changed the name to Junior’s in honor of his two sons. One son, Marvin, said that his father would ship home cheesecakes he had tasted from everywhere he went. Rosen worked with his baker, Eigel Petersen, to develop the cheesecake that is still sold in his restaurants today. In the Village Voice in 1973, journalist Ron Rosenblum declared, “There will never be a better cheesecake than the cheesecake they serve at Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue…it’s the best cheesecake in New York.” That same year it won a contest for best cheesecake run by New York Magazine.

Although numerous city establishments serve or sell New York style cheesecake, it is possible to make one at home. Here is a recipe from Molly O’Neil’s New York Cookbook:


Recipe of a Lifetime: Junior’s Cheesecake

1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons sifted cornstarch

30 ounces (3 3/4 large packages) cream cheese, softened

1 large egg

1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch springform pan. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with the graham cracker crumbs and refrigerate the pan.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the sugar and the cornstarch. Beat in the cream cheese. Beat in the egg. Slowly drizzle in the heavy cream, beating constantly. Add the vanilla and stir well.
  3. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake until the top is golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 3 hours.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.


Evan Davis

Smorgasburg is an outdoor food market that originated in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2011 and now takes place every Saturday and Sunday, in Williamsburg and Prospect Park, respectively. Originally an offshoot of the Brooklyn Flea, the founders created a food centric market due to limited space. Today over 100 vendors flock to Brooklyn every weekend to serve innovative foods to tourists from all over the world.

The Rueben Sandwich

Aileen Marshall

Reuben on rye at Katz’s Deli, Ernesto Andrade via Wiki Commons

What do you get when you order a Reuben? It is a large, hunger-killing sandwich consisting of corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and melted Swiss cheese, all grilled on buttered rye bread. While it can be considered an iconic New York City food, its origin is unclear. There are several different claims as to the inventor of this sandwich, none of which have ever really been proven. There are stories about it starting here in this city, while there are conflicting assertions that it was invented, surprisingly, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Most of the claims to a New York City origin are attributed to Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant who owned Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, known for large sandwiches named after celebrities. In 1914, it was located on Broadway and 82nd Street. In Craig Claiborne’s New York Times column in 1976, Reuben’s daughter, Patricia Taylor, said that one night in 1914, an actress named Annette Selos, girlfriend of Charlie Chaplin, came in to her father’s place and said that she was famished. Reuben made her a sandwich of ham, turkey, coleslaw, cheese and dressing on rye. She said it was the best sandwich she’d ever had. He named it the Reuben’s special. However, this combination is not what is considered a Reuben sandwich.

Another story comes from a 1968 book, Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Hertner. He wrote that the Reuben was invented by William Hammerly, a New York City accountant and amateur cook. Hammerly named it after Arnold Reuben because of his well-known charity works.

One more claim to the inventor of the sandwich comes from Reuben’s son, Arnold Reuben Jr. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times in 1993, he gives credit to a chef at the restaurant during the 1930s, Alfred Scheuing. Reuben said that he would work in his father’s restaurant many late nights and would grab a burger to eat. One day Scheuing said he was sick of seeing the boy eat so many burgers. He said he had “some nice fresh corned beef.” He put some on rye bread, added fresh sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, and grilled it for him. Other than these interviews, the only other substantiation to these claims is the fact that Reuben’s menus from these times list both a Reuben’s Special, the ham and turkey version, and a Reuben sandwich, the traditional corned beef version.

The other claim to the invention of the Reuben comes, unexpectedly, from Omaha, Nebraska. In the 1920s there were a group of men who would meet for a weekly poker game in a room at the Blackstone Hotel. The lore goes that they liked to make their own sandwiches during the game. One of the men was grocer Reuben Kulakofsky. His family has claimed over the years that he made up this sandwich from a platter sent up to the room by the hotel. There is a competing story about the hotel chef, Charles Schimmel. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Weil, wrote to the New York Times that Schimmel invented the sandwich specifically for Kulakofsky. That’s why he named it after him. Schimmel subsequently put it on the hotel menu. A 1934 menu from the Blackstone does list the Reuben sandwich. Note that a Reuben sandwich is grilled. It’s not clear if there was a grill in the hotel room where the men played poker.

Another Omaha tie comes from 1956. Fern Snyder was a chef at the Rose Bowl Hotel in Omaha. The National Restaurant Association had a contest that year for the best hotel and restaurant sandwich. Snyder’s entry of a recipe for a Reuben sandwich won the contest.

Wherever it comes from, this meal-sized sandwich is relatively easy to make at home. Just butter one side of a slice of rye bread, then put it in a hot pan or grill. On top of the bread place several slices of corned beef. On top of the beef put some drained sauerkraut. Over the sauerkraut, pour some Russian dressing. Top it all off with a slice of Swiss cheese. Butter one side of another slice of rye bread, place it on top of the sandwich, butter side facing out. Press the sandwich together, and continue to grill and press, flipping occasionally, until the cheese had melted and the bread is golden and crispy on the outside.

There are many restaurants in this city that offer a Reuben sandwich. One place close to our university is Ess-a-bagel on Third Avenue near 51st Street. The Brooklyn Diner on 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue also offers a Reuben. And there is the famous Katz’s Deli, on Houston Street near First Street. Of course, many diners have Reubens on their menu. While not the healthiest choice for a meal, it is savory, satisfying, and delicious.