• The initial pandemic response changed how and when Americans eat.
  • Nutritional psychiatry examines the link between food and mental health.
  • If you're stressed and can't stomach the idea of a meal, try eating something like a smoothie or plain baked potato for some simple nutrition.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: Hi, everyone. I'm John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. And you're watching Coronavirus in Context. Has your eating habits changed over the last few months? To talk about this concept of pandemic eating, I've asked Dr. Drew Ramsey, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, to join me today. Dr. Ramsey, thanks for taking time to talk.

DREW RAMSEY: Dr. Whyte, it's such a-- it's a treat to talk with you, sir. I look forward to-- to our conversation.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, sometimes, you're referred to as a nutritional psychiatrist. I haven't heard that term before. What does that mean?

DREW RAMSEY: Uh, well, it means I'm a psychiatrist, and I-- and I'm interested in food as part of what I think about, in terms of both the treatment of psychiatric disorders but also the prevention. And that-- part of what nutritional psychiatry also does is really pushes the conversation around mental health, around-- in the context of food, though, which is something that, you know, everyone's always thinking about. And we often relate how we feel to what we eat.

But we don't sometimes do as much as we need to to really think about how mental health, uh, is really brain health and how-- there's so much that we know about how to feed the brain. And that's not how a lot of folks are eating.

JOHN WHYTE: Right. Well let's talk about what's happening during this pandemic. Um, you know, sometimes, we hear about the coronavirus 15-- people gaining weight. We saw that on a survey at WebMD. You know, people are eating more, obviously, inside the house than outside. Walk us through-- what are some of these key elements of this pandemic eating, and what are you concerned about?

DREW RAMSEY: Well, I would say the COVID 15 is one of those things that we like to talk about but-- but I don't think happened, to be quite honest. I think what happened is that people were inside during winter-- during an incredible stressful time. They maybe ate a little bit more. I suspect, like, a lot of people who gained those pounds, most people are losing them now. I am. And so I think it's one of those--

JOHN WHYTE: We're all not losing them. [LAUGHS]

DREW RAMSEY: OK, well, I think you're going to this summer. By the end of this session, John, we're going to take care of those for you.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DREW RAMSEY: But I think what's happened is there have been a couple of phases of this-- there is an initial pandemic response is for quarantine for the first time in history for any American. It really shifted how we ate. For the first time, a lot of people really faced what so many millions of Americans struggle with all the time, which is food insecurity. Is there going to be the foods that I like or enough food for me and my family at the grocery store? For the first time, people were stocking up.

This also led to the healthiest thing that's happened to Americans, in terms of nutrition, in decades-- since I've been a physician, which is everyone was eating at home. And if you think about the number one move that we want patients to do more of it's cooking at home to take care of themselves and take care of their nutrition. When we cook at home, especially when we start pushing more plants, um, it's just phenomenal for our health. And so that happened. And I think that's a little under-reported.

The next thing that happened, of course, is everyone started-- a lot of reports of people drinking more and more alcohol, initially. Just as people are dealing with stress, alcohol is one of those coping mechanisms that many people lean into. And I also think that's faded.

You know, there was an initial kind of, wow. And now, this is our reality. Drinking isn't a healthy coping mechanism long-term term. So--

JOHN WHYTE: You talked about maybe sales have increased for alcohol. But that's because people aren't necessarily going out.

DREW RAMSEY: Yeah, there are a lot of these stat--

JOHN WHYTE: Total consumption might not have increased. Is that-- is that accurate?

DREW RAMSEY: Yeah-- there has been a lot of reports and speculation. Certainly, we know there's been more depression, more anxiety, more suicidal thoughts. But in terms of more alcohol consumption, of course alcohol sales went up. No one can go to a bar and drink outside anymore or drink out of their home anymore.

And so, you know, some of these statistics that we see I think we need to question. Certainly, people were drinking more, from what I saw clinically in my practice. I also think that people really shifted from those behaviors. Same thing with eating-- I mean, there is certainly a fatigue. But a lot of people, you know, especially folks who are oriented towards trying to eat a little more healthily, those habits have, I think for a lot of folks, come back or getting pushed now, as people-- they're not going to let this virus really totally derail their health.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, stress and anxiety obviously have a role on appetite. And we've talked about those persons who, when they're stressed and anxious, eat more. But there is also a group of people who, when they face trauma, when they get anxious, they eat less. And we've been hearing from a lot of people who, with the George Floyd killing and the protest, they feel stressed. Some of them feel traumatized and talk about they can't even eat. Their stomach feels sick. What's going on there? And how do we address it?

DREW RAMSEY: Well, collectively, we were sitting with the trauma of losing our context-- losing life as we knew it-- very rapidly because of the COVID virus. And then on top of this, we have just an absolutely tragic and horrible event of George Floyd and many other Black Americans being killed, often at the hands of the police but really in a lot of other contexts.

And so the Black Lives Matter movement caused an uprising-- a wonderful uprising that we need in our country. But with that and with that collective trauma, there's just a huge shift-- a lot of people just feeling really upset-- really upset about the state of our country, really upset about just how much racism there is, upset about the hard conversations. These aren't easy conversations to have with-- one of our neighbors has a big Confederate flag up.

I know the right thing to do is to go ask him about it-- not in a defensive way but in a way to create a dialogue with my neighbor to understand who he or she is. I haven't done that yet. Thinking about that-- I don't know, it doesn't do good things for appetite.

And so it's where-- and, John, it's really important to highlight for people. This is where getting some compartmentalization around your self-care is very important right now. And you and I, as physicians-- most folks who are actually in health care-- know that. That way that you got to walk from the ER to the cafeteria. And you maybe saw something horrible moments ago, And you have to take a deep breath, get your lunch, and get back to work.

And so that kind of advice, I think, fits in some ways that certainly, we shouldn't ignore what's going on. There are moments where if you're feeling nauseous and not like eating and you haven't eaten, what's the easiest thing you can you put down? Can you get a healthy smoothie in there? Can you get some protein or maybe some scrambled eggs or baked potato? Really simple, digestible fuel-- that, that, that's just absolutely key.

Especially all those hard conversations require a lot of brainpower and presence and sitting with hard feelings. And we don't do that well when we're undernourished or we're living on lots of carbs and lots of alcohol and not a lot of sleep. And so it's just where self-care is so key for us finding our way forward.

It's really important for all health care providers to really take care of ourselves-- give your, give your body and your brain the good stuff-- the good fuel. Make sure, and as John suggests, get a little bit more sleep.

JOHN WHYTE: Dr. Ramsey, I want to thank you for taking time today to shed some insights about this concept of pandemic nutrition and how we really can make that connection of food to our bodies, particularly our brains.

DREW RAMSEY: And Dr. Whyte, thank you so much. It's really a treat to talk with you-- to talk about the importance of nutrition during this time. And I look forward to talking with you again soon.

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