By Juliette Goodrich & Molly McCreaBy Juliette Goodrich

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — COVID-19? How about the COVID 15? That is all the extra pounds you’ve gained?

This pandemic is driving us to the fridge or pantry with some pretty intense cravings for comfort food.

But there is good reason: we’re nearly 9 months into the pandemic and life is full of restrictions and fears. KPIX 5 spoke to folks on Chestnut Street in San Francisco who were trying to enjoy some fresh air.

“Things aren’t getting better as we thought,” said Brian Goebel

“You can’t see your friends. You feel paranoid all the time,” noted high schooler Nastasia Hoppe.

“I haven’t even started school yet, you don’t want to get COVID, but you want to spend times with your friends,” added her friend Sasha Briones.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen with my job,” commented Lauren Lee.

While a mask can slow the spread of the virus, there’s one thing it can’t do: stop the cravings for comfort foods. Everyone we spoke to on the Marina District street immediately told us their go-to foods when they feel stressed out: ice cream, cookies, noodles, boba, and pizza.

“There’s a lot of eating of our feelings,” remarked bicyclist Eric Nolder.

Experts told KPIX 5 if you’re constantly craving comfort food during COVID, you’re not alone. Our brains are wired that way.

“We’re really fighting some tough neurobiology,” remarked UCSF’s Dr. Elissa Epel.

Dr. Epel is a professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Psychiatry and a world expert on the relationships between our emotional states, what we eat, and our health.

“COVID is a perfect storm for stress eating,” she noted.

Epel explained how the pandemic has created a chronic stress situation.

When faced with stress, our bodies churn out high doses of a stress hormone called cortisol.

Cortisol then activates a part of the brain called the rewards area.

“And our rewards area creates cravings. Cravings are a survival mechanism, and they are strong,” explained Epel.

Anything sweet is soothing and helps to regulate stress.

“We’re going to tend to go for the highly rewarding, high comfort foods like those high sugary dessert foods or high fat, high sugar combination foods,“ added Dr. Rachel Radin,

Dr. Radin is also with UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry, in the division of Behavioral Health. She is an expert on stress, eating, and metabolic health and says once the connection is made in our brain, it can create a vicious cycle.

“Where our brain makes this association between stress, comfort foods, reward, pleasure. And then when we’re stressed out again, we tend to go for these foods over and over and over again,” explained Dr Radin.

And the stress created by COVID-19 is not an acute event: it’s feels never ending and has produced acute stress.

Lauren Lee told KPIX 5 that she is all too aware of the problem.

“The food makes me feel happy and I continue to do it even though I know I shouldn’t be unfortunately,” the young lady revealed. The other issue: we’re not moving or exercising as much as we used to pre-pandemic.

All of this is creating a different kind of public health crisis percolating inside our bellies: a shifting metabolism.

“For whatever reason, when we’re really chronically-stressed, we tend to deposit fat around the stomach area,” said Dr. Radin.

Evidence suggests that chronic stress puts us at risk for insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

And while life during the pandemic feels out of control, there’s hope.

“What we do have control about is what we eat and let’s just focus on sugar sweetened beverages,” said Jamey Schmidt. Schmidt is a principal investigator with Sutter Health CPMC.

She is heading up a study that actually began late last year, involving several Sutter Hospitals.

Some of the campuses swapped out all the sugary beverages that were sold there for healthier choices: non-caloric waters, flavored zero calorie beverages or fizzy drinks.

“If we can reduce that abdominal fat, it just improves the risk factors for disease,” said Schmidt.

As to why sugary drinks? There were a few reasons according to Schmidt. She told us 36% of all calories consumed by the American public come from sugar-sweetened beverages.

Another reason expanded upon a similar but smaller pilot study done by Dr. Epel at UCSF involving its medical centers. That study revealed a big benefit to employees who worked on the campuses that only sold healthier alternatives.

“Their waist circumference reduced significantly,” said Schmidt.

In the Sutter Health study, there were two arms to the study. In all, 650 employees signed up and each arm was to last 12 months. Participants were asked a lot of questions about their beverage intake, and their measurements were taken at the top of the study, 6 months, and then 12 months.

The first arm of the study, which was in the Bay Area, had completed an entire year. The second arm in Sacramento was underway. Then 6 months in for the Sacramento cohort, and the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

“This was a challenge. And so together with my colleagues, we figured out what we were going to do. And so, we decided that we were going to have to do remote visits,” explained Schmidt.

But the researchers quickly realized how the pandemic was adding stress to all the participants. They added in questions for all employees about how both arms were coping: what foods they were eating, and whether there was a relationship between any increasing anxiety and their food choices.

Then, even more stress: the fires and the highly contentious presidential election. Analysis on the data begins next year. The researchers are very curious to see what they found and what the data might reveal about a highly stressful year.

But Schmidt said until they have results, there is something anyone who is gaining weight due to overeating comfort foods can do. Think about easy strategies: check out what’s in your pantry or what’s in your fridge. And think about reducing your intake of sugary beverage one beverage at a time: Swap it out for a zero calorie drink each day and by the end of the month your COVID-15 is now COVID-14: you would lose a pound.

Another excellent coping resource is a UCSF website created during the pandemic by specialists on staff. It’s packed with a tremendous amount of wisdom on how to cope during this stressful time: on whether you’re suffering from pandemic fatigue, trouble sleeping, anxiety or you want to try some simple mindfulness techniques when it comes to combating the drive to consume comfort foods when you’re stressed and not hungry,

Juliette Goodrich