Vanderbilt University faculty are sharing their expertise on a range of topics related to COVID-19. Subscribe to Vanderbilt’s “Ask an Expert” series on YouTube to get the latest updates.
As students, faculty and staff around the country settle into self-quarantine mode, many are wondering how to maintain a healthy lifestyle while balancing stress from all the changes in how we eat and move.
According to Jamie Pope, registered dietitian nutritionist and assistant professor of practice in Medicine, Health, and Society, people are navigating a new normal in how they feed themselves and their families: limited grocery options, increased at-home cooking, food delivery options, and continual kitchen access.
“It is easy for all of us to get off track as our concerns and priorities understandably revolve around staying safe, but it’s important to maintain as much as possible a balanced, varied and adequate diet to fuel and nourish our bodies and bolster our immunity.”
Below, she offers four tips for maintaining proper nutrition against the odds.
Try to find and maintain a regular schedule.
It might seem difficult at first, but a regular cadence of meals and snacks aligns with the body’s needs and, according to Pope, promotes better sleep and less fragmentation during the day.
“It’s easy to lose track of what we are actually eating and override the body’s natural hunger signals if we ‘graze’ rather than eat fairly regular meals and snacks,” said Pope. “Being at home with constant access to the kitchen and whatever might be on-hand makes it easy to grab a bite of this or a handful of that.”
To avoid non-stop grazing and snacking, which are often the byproducts of stress or boredom, she recommends limiting eating to the kitchen or dining room. “Fix a plate or pour a serving of a snack food in a bowl, sit down at the table or pull up a stool to the counter rather than standing in front of the frig or taking a bag of snacks to the living room.” She says that chewing sugar-free gum and staying hydrated can also help.
“Sipping on hot beverages not only helps hydrate but they are comforting, which may be enough to offset impulsive snacking.”
Follow the 80-20 rule.
Pope suggests that people emphasize nutrient dense foods 80 percent of the time, while leaving 20 percent for indulgences and comfort foods.
Nutrient density, which refers to foods that contain a higher proportion of nutrients relative to their calorie content, provides “more bang for your buck,” according to Pope, and will not only help you meet nutrient needs, but leave you feeling fuller longer.
“For example, a handful of baby carrots are much more nutrient dense than a handful of Cheetos and contain fewer calories. Choosing nutrient dense foods like broth-based soups, tomatoes, cucumber, peaches and apples, will provide you with nutrients and help you save a little room for the less nutritious snacks.”
Involve the family in smart meal planning and preparation.
“Most of us are used to eating out several times per week and aren’t used to doing so much meal planning or preparation,” said Pope. “It does help to take stock of what you’ve got on hand and do a bit of creative meal planning.”
She recommends analyzing items that have been in the freezer as possible meals or additions to a meal. Examples might be that chili sitting in the freezer from this past winter, which could be served atop pasta or a baked potato.
Pope also notes that families and those quarantining together can come together to plan and prepare meals: “Parents can use recipe reading and preparation as a math or chemistry lesson – measuring amounts, conversions, and how ingredients interact.”
Give yourself a break.
It’s a challenging time for human lives around the world, and it’s okay for everyone to process in their own individual way, even if that means making room in a balanced diet for a few more treats.
Pope points to attitudes of consumers in similar crises, such as New York City restaurants in the wake of 9/11, which reported increased sales of ‘comfort foods’ like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, soups and sweets.
“A good rule of thumb during this time period is: Don’t be too hard on yourself,” said Pope. “You don’t have to swear off salty snacks or sweets. Family favorites and desserts can have their place in a varied, balanced diet, and they might just provide a bit of nourishment for the soul in hard times.”