People eat for many reasons – pleasure, emotional release, boredom or to connect with others. And then there is eating during a pandemic. Whether you find yourself working from home, in quarantine or transitioning back to an office, chances are good that COVID-19 has impacted how you eat.
As a dietitian, I address eating disorders and disordered eating, defined as a behavior that doesn’t quite fit the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis. I do this by helping students at Binghamton University to eat in ways that support both optimal physical and mental health.
In working with students who have food concerns, I teach them that food doesn’t have to be a problem but rather a source of fuel that supports our bodies and minds. And while the pandemic has shaped our lives in unexpected ways, there are a few simple strategies to help you strike a nutritional balance no matter your situation.
1. Eat like clockwork
Our bodies love routine and tend to perform best with repetition. This is especially true of eating. Without the structure of a regular work or school day, or when your “desk” is within arm’s length of your fridge, it can be easier to eat erratically. Try to eat at around the same time each day. This can help regulate hunger and fullness cues, leading to more mindful decisions about what and when to eat.
Aim to eat a balanced meal every three to four hours. Add a snack when meals are more than five hours apart. Include at least three food groups for a meal and two for a snack, and try to include protein whenever you eat. Sticking to a regular schedule and eating balanced meals and snacks throughout the day will help prevent excessive snacking at night. If you feel hungry sooner than you plan to eat, have a small snack or adjust your mealtime. By eating when you begin to feel hungry, you can avoid the urgent, frenzied eating triggered by your body as you get hungrier.
2. Prioritize sleep
Sleep quality and quantity are tied to the way we eat. A lack of sleep is associated with higher levels of the hormone grehlin, which signals hunger, and lower amounts of leptin, the hormone that signals fullness.
Poor sleep quality and quantity also seem to be correlated with an enhanced reward response to foods that seem irresistible – salty, sweet, oily – and that can lead us to reach more often for those foods. The best way to support your sleep is to practice good sleep habits. Try going to bed and waking up at consistent times each day. Put screens away an hour before bedtime, and avoid caffeine eight hours before you go to sleep.
3. Stock a nutritious pantry
These days, trips to the grocery store are often less frequent, especially if you are quarantined for illness or exposure. Stocking up on nutritious foods that can be stored for several weeks is a good practice so you are prepared no matter what the situation. This practice makes it easier to throw together easy, healthy meals using what you have on hand. Pantry staples may include canned and dried beans, brown rice, whole grain pasta, oatmeal and whole grain cereals, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds, canned tuna, peanut butter and dried fruit.
4. Shop for the freezer
One of the biggest challenges of infrequent grocery shopping is fresh fruits and vegetables, which tend to spoil within a week. Shop for produce that lasts longer such as carrots, potatoes, cabbage, apples, winter squash, oranges, clementines, yams, celery and sweet potatoes.
If you have the freezer space, stock up on frozen vegetables and fruit, which are flash frozen right after being picked, locking in most of their nutrients. Not only do these products last a long time, but they can be less expensive and equally nutritious as fresh vegetables.
5. Cook creatively
There are many ways to build balanced, nutritious meals by combining protein with a starch and a vegetable. Keep an arsenal of creative “no recipe” recipes or ideas that allow you to cook with what you have. Some options may include soups and stews, frittatas, casseroles, stir-fries, burritos and pasta dishes. Challenge yourself to invent a meal based on ingredients available. This can stretch the time between grocery trips, which saves money, shrinks food waste and develops your creative cooking skills in the kitchen.
6. Pack a lunch
Heading back to work? Consider packing a lunch. Bringing your own lunch may be necessary anyway, as workplace cafeterias and eateries may be closed or have limited service. Bringing food from home tends to result in a more nutritious meal and can help to avoid areas where people congregate to purchase and eat food. To avoid using a communal microwave, there are also several portable products on the market that both heat and keep your food hot.
7. Snack with intention
Many people tend to snack more when they are stressed. This is a normal response. Just make sure that these foods don’t displace regular, balanced meals. To be more conscious about snacking, use a bowl or plate rather than eating directly out of a container. This helps you see how much you’re eating and can slow how quickly you eat. Most importantly, if you’re going to have a snack, enjoy it!
Focus on your delicious task. Allow yourself to eat without distraction, noticing the texture, smell, temperature and taste. By paying attention, you’re more likely to connect with your hunger and fullness cues, which will lead to a greater sense of physical satisfaction.
8. Keep moving
Move your body when working from home or quarantining. It is more important than ever to have a consistent exercise routine. In addition to the numerous benefits of physical activity, including boosting your immune system, exercise can have a positive impact on how and what you eat. A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that the more participants exercised, the more likely they were to eat nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, rather than less nutritious snacks. People who exercise may be more likely to be motivated to fuel their body properly.
Julie Lee, Registered Dietitian, Binghamton University, State University of New York