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Between trying to manage your anxiety and the carbo-loaded quarantine baking trends, eating healthy might be the last thing on your mind. However, nutrition is perhaps more important now than ever given the central role that it plays in the immune system.
“The focus is to try to get that immune system nice and strong so that you can fight off infectious diseases,” said Deborah Brooks, department chair and assistant professor nutrition and dietetics at Southern Maine Community College. “You want to have as much power to fight this thing off if you do get it.”
Eating well also helps manage stress — Brooks said that there is a strong connection between mental health and a healthy gut — and gives you an element of control in your life during this uncertain time.
“There’s so much uncertainty right now, and this is something people can control,” said Anne-Marie Davee, registered dietician and a University of New England Nutrition program faculty member.
Access to fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, may decline as consumers make less frequent trips to the grocery stores or farmers markets. Some nutritionists, however, have a more optimistic view of the way that the pandemic will impact our nutrition.
“It’s been a call to action for Americans to be more conscious,” Davee said. “I’ve seen frozen fruit and vegetables bought off shelves [and] more whole grain cereals [and] breads purchased than I have seen in the past. People are getting it.”
If you’re looking to lay off the sourdough bread and bolster your immune system, here are 5 ways to eat healthier during the pandemic and beyond.
Overeating due to stress or boredom is a common affliction in the current moment.
“Stress eating happens when we look to food for comfort as opposed to nourishment,” said Elisa Ross, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Licensed Dietitian. “The same can happen with boredom. Eating mindfully can help.”
Eating mindfully is about maintaining an in-the-moment awareness of what you are eating and drinking. Use your senses through all aspects of the food preparation and consumption. Avoid doing so in front of the television or at your work-from-home desk. Take a moment to appreciate the shapes, colors and smells of the food before eating it, and notice the texture and flavors of each bite. Reflect on the way that you eat, from your posture to how you chew.
Taking your time with eating will help you honestly evaluate when you are hungry and when you are full to prevent stress snacking.
Stick to a routine
The isolation may have distorted your sense of time. To make sure you are getting the nourishment you need, schedule three meals a day at the time you would normally have them. If you stick to a regular schedule when eating your meals, both your body and mind will thank you.
“Our bodies really like routine,” Davee explained. “You have some eaters that are going to eat through their stress and others that are not going to eat at all because they’re stressed — that creates a problem as well. Eating consistently three meals throughout the day is going to lower your anxiety.”
Consider your plate
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One of the easiest ways to balance nutrition is to consider the contents of each individual plate. Davee and Brooks both recommended a tool called ChooseMyPlate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Print out the diagram and start making your plate look like that,” Davee said. “Have half your plate be fruits and vegetables, a third should be whole grains and a quarter should be your protein source, whether it’s meat animal or plant-based protein.”
Another element to consider is color. Different colors are indicative of different nutrient content, so to make sure that all the nutrients are represented, keep your diet colorful.
“Look down at your plate,” Ross said. “Are a few different colors represented? If not, consider adding more vegetables and fruits to your diet.”
The tool can also be fun for kids, and a good educational lesson for you to use as their de facto homeschool teacher.
“They can learn those things while learning at home,” Brooks said. “The more that they’re involved the better chance that they’re going to try those new foods.”
Plan your meals
Experts agree that planning your meals before you go shopping is the best way to make sure you are getting all the necessary nutrients.
Shopping with a list will help you better plan your meals — and get in and out of the grocery store more quickly.
“I see a lot more people in the grocery store with lists [now],” Davee said. “I hope that continues.”
When you shop, make sure you not only look for what’s on sale and what’s in season, but that you are buying a mix of perishable and nonperishable items. Davee says to plan your week’s menu around the items that will go bad first.
“Use the items that are more perishable first, like kale [and] leafy greens,” she said. “Root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, [as well as] pasta and brown rice, you can use later in the week.”
When it comes to fruit and vegetables, don’t be afraid of frozen options.
“Fresh is always great, but in this time, where food can be a little scarce, frozen is always a good back up,” Brooks said. “A lot of times people think, ‘If I can’t get it fresh, I’m not going to get the nutrition out of it,’ but frozen is just fine.”
Seek out immune-boosting nutrients
Though it is by no means a failsafe against catching the coronavirus, eating foods that make your immune system strong is good practice in general.
Brooks said that the key immune-boosting nutrients to look out for are protein, vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc and magnesium.
“Those vitamins and minerals are super important in strengthening the immune system,” she explained.
Citrus fruits are a great source of vitamin C, Brooks said, but so are “our own Maine potatoes;” cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts; and strawberries, which are coming into season. Dark green and orange foods — think spinach and kale, or carrots and sweet potatoes — are rich in vitamin A. Zinc is prevalent in whole grains and red meat, while magnesium is found in legumes and beans.
Davee said that variety in protein is important to maintaining a healthy immune system.
“Your protein status also helps boost your immune system,” Davee said. “Alternate using some fresh meat poultry and seafood but also canned beans, peas [and] lentils.”
Ross added that selenium is another trace mineral important for the immune system and can be found in Brazil nuts, seafood, eggs and spinach.
When you are thinking about nutrition in the current moment, though, try to find a way to make your new habits sustainable for long-term health and vitality.
“People can really focus on improving their eating habits for a lifetime,” Davee said. “This isn’t going to go away. Now, it’s important to be as strong and healthy as you can be.”
Watch: Why Maine is tracking number of tests instead of people tested