Health & Fitness

2016: The year we ate our feelings

It was a garbage year, so we ate garbage food. Delicious, empty-calorie, comforting, cheesy, fried, chocolatey, boozy garbage food – and who can blame us? Each breaking news alert merited another fistful of M&Ms. Each presidential debate was another occasion to order pizza. Each celebrity taken from us too soon was another evening of binge-watching their movies, binge-listening to their albums and binge-eating an entire bag of chips, or three. The year 2016 was spent eating our feelings, so is it any surprise that we’re ending the year a few pounds heavier than we started it?

For Sarah Lewitinn, 36, music director for the fashion brand Aritzia in New York, the stress eating began with the January death of David Bowie.

“I got really sad and maybe drank a bit, maybe smoked some weed, and my low-carb diet went out the window,” Lewitinn says, who is also known for deejaying under the name Ultragrrrl. “French fries are what I turn to in a moment of crisis.”

It didn’t stop there. She ordered takeout rigatoni from a restaurant in the East Village the night she spent glued to the TV, watching the Republican National Convention. There were the nachos at a crummy Lower East Side Mexican restaurant that “got me through many evenings.” There were the pints of Halo Top ice cream. And then there was Election Night, when she showed up to a party with “a gallon of vodka.” She brought it for her friends, including fashion designer Christian Siriano, and hadn’t planned to drink any of it. But then the returns started coming in, and she changed her mind.

“Christian said, ‘I just ordered some pizza, and you’d better be eating the pizza because we don’t want you drunk right now,’ ” Lewitinn says. “I had two slices, there was all this cheese, there was a crudité platter, and the rest of the night I spent holding onto a vodka soda that I kept refilling.” The next day’s hangover prompted her to have Mexican food for lunch, then curry for dinner, and then a cheese plate after that. By the time pop star George Michael’s death was announced on Christmas Day, Lewitinn had already written off this year, but not before requesting her mother’s latkes.

“In 2017, if Morrissey and Madonna die, I have to stop acting the way I’m acting, which is eating everything in sight,” she says.

Hey, no judgment here. In tough times, we seek simple pleasures. And if a piece of cake is going to grant you temporary reprieve from the fact that Brexit happened, or that Donald Trump is our president-elect, or that terrorists attacked a Christmas market in Germany, or that Princess Leia is dead, well, who wouldn’t want that piece of cake? That’s why orders for desserts on the Caviar app went up 72 percent the day after the election.

Election stress

“It seemed like this year, there wasn’t a balance of good and bad things. It was like, everything is awful, nothing is getting better,” says Shaun Duke, 33, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida. His coping mechanism? Cookies, particularly Thin Mints. “It’s chocolate, it’s mint, it’s all the delicious together,” he says. And between that and other post-election sadness snacks, Duke says he put on 5 pounds in November that he is eager to lose.

The reality show-like tumult of the campaign and transition made it ideal for mindless eating, too.

Watching the campaign “would be like a bad movie where people might get hurt at the end of it, and you wanted some popcorn during it to maybe make you feel at ease,” says Jon Savitt, 24, a Washington freelance writer and comedian.

“I think I ate five pints of ice cream in the week following the election,” says Stephanie Springer, 39, a patent examiner who lives in Bradenton, Fla., via email. “And I end up eating cookies every time a possible Cabinet nominee’s name is announced.”

For others, stress eating is an occupational hazard. Brendan Polmer, a 31-year-old studio operator at CNN (who – full disclosure – worked with this reporter on her college newspaper) recalled the lavish spreads the network would set out for employees on big primary or debate nights: fried chicken, brownies, Panera sandwiches, chips and doughnuts.

“We even had McDonald’s catering,” Polmer says via Facebook Messenger. “Anderson Cooper was chowing down on a Quarter Pounder and French fries.”

The treats proved irresistible to the exhausted staff.

“It got to the point that we were eating cookies and carbs until 2 a.m.,” he says. It has taken its toll on CNN employee waistlines, giving them flashbacks to freshman year. “Everyone here calls it ‘the Election 15.’ 

The more I learn about Trump the more I realize this post-election eating-my-feelings diet is going to last at least four more years.

Now what?

Was all that eating worth it? Well, we don’t feel any better. (This reporter certainly doesn’t feel good about the entire bag of Haribo gummies she housed during a particularly trying week.) A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, found that stress eaters don’t even particularly enjoy the food they eat while stressed, either. A study published in September in Biological Psychology found that stress doesn’t actually lead to more eating – in fact, the stressed-out people in the study reported decreased consumption. Which means that stress eating may actually just be a personal failing. Which makes that particular study yet another bad thing that happened in 2016.

It also means many are entering 2017 not only with the added weight of geopolitical turmoil and cultural loss pressing down on us, but also the weight of nights spent forlornly eating spoonfuls of icing directly out of the tub. It ups the ante for those New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym.

“Everyone’s hoping that 2016 can be wiped from the slate – that anything you say or do in 2016 just gets expunged,” Lewitinn says.

She says she gained 10 pounds this year due to a combination of factors that perpetuated her stress eating: Her usual New York gym went out of business. She dropped out of the dating pool for six months and decided, “No one’s going to see me naked, so I’m just going to enjoy myself and eat.” And she unfollowed a bunch of svelte lifestyle Instagrammers who used to motivate her to be fit, but now just annoy her: “You know what? The world is really garbage right now and I don’t need to hear about your hashtag blessed life.”

But it’s not as though the state of the world magically improved Jan. 1. And it’s unlikely that kale chips will become more delicious than pizza. So let’s be honest. We’re going to spend 2017 exactly as we spent 2016: confused, a little sad, and full of chili cheese fries.