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A Registered Dietitian’s Tips for Eating During a Pandemic

Stocking up on the right foods is just part of the equation in the time of COVID-19. These 12 tips help with proper nutrition and weight maintenance.

Last Updated:
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Prioritize nutrition, and you'll help strengthen your immune system.

Amid the first pandemic in more than a generation, the U.S. federal government is advising Americans to “stock up” and “hunker down.” But what do these mandates — issued to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — actually mean?

It depends on your situation.

Ultimately, your family size and whether you have children or older relatives living at home can affect your family’s nutritional needs and routines.

Social distancing or self-quarantining (if you’re recovering from COVID-19) will also play a role in your diet. You’ll likely find yourself preparing more meals for your family, eating solo, or carrying out or ordering in from local restaurants.

Regardless, your eating situation is likely to be different than it was in early 2020 — and your food choices have the potential to impact your body weight and health.

RELATED: Coronavirus Shopping List: What to Buy and Skip

Some Notes on Stress, Loneliness, and Eating Habits

During this time of uncertainty, when many people’s routines have been shaken up, it’s normal to feel stressed. Some people may feel lonely, which has the potential to pose harms to your health.

The late John Cacioppo, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of Chicago extensively researched the health effects of loneliness. They found that loneliness, stress, and complex biological and physiological responses are connected. Furthermore, they found that long-term stress can result in an increased production of the stress hormone cortisol.

How can stress and loneliness affect your diet? Well, the cascade of these hormonal changes can signal the brain to eat more frequently, crave high-fat and sugary foods, increase appetite, and ultimately result in weight gain. Indeed, past research shows a clear link between stress and obesity.

Research in animals shows that social-isolation-induced obesity (SIO) is another potential concern. The allure of being home and eating entire boxes of cookies, pints of ice cream, and bags of potato chips is very real for individuals who already struggle with managing weight and aren’t accustomed to having less social interaction.

For many people, food acts as a friend — it is always there, can reduce loneliness, and is comforting during times of stress.

If you are feeling isolated, do your best to reach out to friends and family. The more you are able to communicate your emotions, the less lonely you may feel and the less likely you are to succumb to the effects of stress.

The Connection Between Good Sleep Habits and Diet

Additionally, social isolation is often intertwined with sleep disturbances, past research shows. Similar to the effects of loneliness, inadequate sleep may contribute to elevated cortisol levels, coupled with high ghrelin levels (a hormone that triggers hunger) and low levels of leptin (a hormone that leads to a feeling of fullness). Ultimately, these hormonal effects can lead to overeating. The Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

RELATED: The United States of Stress 2019

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can view it as a chance to turn around your eating habits. To do so, follow these tips:

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Stock Up — but Don’t Hoard — Coronavirus Groceries

As you stock up on essentials, consider how many people you’re feeding and how much food those individuals need for proper nutrition. Buy what you need so others can do the same. In general, you’ll want to have two weeks’ worth of groceries on hand, to limit the number of times you have to go grocery shopping and in case you or one of your family members are not feeling well. (Follow this guide for sanitizing them and wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.)

Perishable foods — including fruit, veggies, and raw lean meats — are good choices. But during a pandemic, these foods may be scarce in your community.

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Redefine What Healthy Food Means to You

Therefore, if there isn’t enough fresh, healthy food at your local grocery store, you’ll likely need to expand your definition of what is considered healthy.

Believe it or not, packaged, frozen, and canned produce can be a nutritious choice for you and your family. Just be sure to opt for frozen or canned vegetables without heavy cream-based sauces and ones labeled “low” or “reduced sodium” or “no salt added” (especially if you have high blood pressure).

Dried fruit can also help you get the nutrients you need, though these are higher in sugar than fresh fruit and a more dense source of calories. Try sun-dried tomatoes in salads, dried cranberries in chicken salads, raisins in oatmeal, and dried prunes or apricots as a sweet snack. Canned fruit that comes packaged in its own juices is another option.

If you have type 2 diabetes, though, be mindful of portion size, carbohydrate counts, and glycemic index of foods that are not traditionally part of your diet. High-carb foods such as grains and dried fruit are high on this scale and have the tendency to elevate blood sugar more quickly than other foods. Thus, eat them only in moderation and continue to monitor your blood sugar regularly.

The ideal choice for everyone is fresh produce, but because you’ll want to minimize grocery trips, seek nutrient-rich options with a long shelf life. For example, apples and oranges can stay fresh for four weeks. For veggies, onions, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, kale, and broccoli can last a couple of weeks in the fridge before spoiling if stored correctly.

Need more incentive to stock up on produce? Eating fruit and veggies may boost immunity, past research shows. Though following a healthy diet isn’t the only thing you should be doing to prevent illness, consider these foods an important part of your arsenal against COVID-19.

RELATED: The Ultimate Diet Guide for Stress Management

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Summary | 13 Annotations
For many people, food acts as a friend — it is always there, can reduce loneliness, and is comforting during times of stress.If you are feeling isolated, do your best to reach out to friends and family. The more you are able to communicate your emotions, the less lonely you may feel and the less likely you are to succumb to the effects of stress.
2020/06/17 14:39
1Stock Up — but Don’t Hoard — Coronavirus Groceries
2020/06/17 14:39
2Redefine What Healthy Food Means to You
2020/06/17 14:39
3Change Up Your Protein Game
2020/06/17 14:39
4Don’t Got Milk? Snag These Other Sources of Calcium and Vitamin D
2020/06/17 14:39
5Get Your Grains — but Make Them Whole
2020/06/17 14:40
6Keep Nutritious Snacks on Hand
2020/06/17 14:40
7Choose Healthy, Nonperishable Sources of Fat
2020/06/17 14:40
8Incorporate Mealtimes Into Your Routine
2020/06/17 14:40
9Enjoy Comfort Foods — Just Choose Them Carefully
2020/06/17 14:40
10Stock Up on ‘Sick Day’ Supplies in Case You Get COVID-19
2020/06/17 14:40
11Keep Foods to Boost Your Immune System on Hand
2020/06/17 14:40
12To Maintain Weight and Enjoy Your Food, Eat Mindfully
2020/06/17 14:40