How to Eat Healthy During A Pandemic

Jessica Penner, RDNutrition, OvereatingLeave a Comment

kitchen table

Pandemic eating: how to get your core nutrients, support your immune system, strengthen your family bond over food, and overcome your fear of comfort eating.

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You may have a LOT of thoughts about food during this coronavirus pandemic! From not having enough to eat, to being worried about eating too much, to wanting to strengthen your immune system to ward off an infection, there’s a lot you could be worrying about.

Take a deep breath in, then exhale.

I don’t have a magic wand to make everything better. But I can help you with those specific questions! I’ll do my best to ease your mind and help you feel supported during these crazy times!

Focus on core nutrients

In “normal times” I do my best to encourage all y’all to eat a wide variety of foods and work on expanding your palate. But these aren’t normal times, my friend. You may not be able to access fresh food right now. You may not be able to access some basics, like oats, due to all the panic buying and hoarding. You may be concerned that your child is eating a lot of noodles and frozen peas right now.

I’m reminded of what a fellow dietitian told a friend who was worried about packing perfect lunches for her kid.

Her response was short and sweet. Core nutrients.

Your body needs fat, carbs, and protein. Those are the core nutrients.

In the long haul, it also needs a variety of other essential nutrients. But in the short haul, like during a period of self-isolation where you’re not allowed to go grocery shopping, you can relax knowing that your family’s health status isn’t going to fall apart if they eat more KD and hot dogs than usual!

Eat to support your immune system

Everybody is googling “immune boosting foods” right now. You may be wondering what you should be eating to avoid getting this virus, or to help deal with it if you do get it.

I’m sorry to say that there isn’t one single food out there that will protect you from getting sick or cure you from the virus.

But there are a few key nutrients that can help keep our immune system healthy!

Vitamin D: If you’re deficient in this Vitamin, you may be more susceptible to infection. Vitamin D is needed for the body to mount a defence against an invader.

Vitamin D is the ONE nutrient I always recommend taking in a supplement form. There are two reasons for this.

  1. It’s true that we can synthesize Vitamin D from the sun, BUT unless you live near the equator, this doesn’t happen year round. Sunscreen blocks 95-99% of Vitamin D production anyhow.
  2. Food isn’t a reliable source of Vitamin D. There are very few natural sources of Vitamin D. Some foods, like milk and milk alternatives are weakly fortified with Vitamin D, but not enough to meet your daily needs.

Humans aged 1-70 need at least 600 IU a day, but some researchers argue that you may need more than this for optimal Vitamin D status. The Institute of Medicine states adults can safely take up to 4000 IU per day (1000-3000 IU/day for kids).

Zinc: While some inflammation is needed to mount an immune response to an invader, you don’t want the inflammation to get out of control. Adequate zinc is needed to put the brakes on the level of inflammation and keep it in a healthy range that can help fight an infection.

Note that I wrote “adequate zinc is needed.”  If you’re getting enough zinc in your diet, super loading isn’t going to help! The goal is to prevent a deficiency, not flood your body with zinc.

Adults need 8-11mg of zinc per day. Here are some food sources high in zinc:

  • Oysters: try them on crackers with hot sauce
  • Wheat germ: try adding some wheat germ to your morning oatmeal or to muffins
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Cheese/yogurt
  • Lentils

As you can see, there are fewer plant-based sources of zinc, so anyone following a vegan diet needs to pay special attention to this nutrient, or take a supplement.

Vitamins A, Bs, C, E, K, & other minerals: Nearly all the vitamins and minerals play some role in the immune system, whether it’s as an anti-oxidant to protect against oxidative stress or simply as part of the immune response itself.

Again, consuming these in high amounts isn’t necessary and may actually be harmful if taken in excess.

Eating fruits and veggies that are dark green and orange, as well as dried fruits, will secure these vitamins and minerals.

Hakuna matata

Stressing out about eating the “right foods” is counter productive. Stress (and the lack of sleep it may produce) will have a bigger effect on reducing your immune system than not eating a carrot. Take a page out of Timon and Pumba’s songbook and adopt the “hakuna matata” attitude, which is roughly translated to “no worries.”

If you can, try to eat your fruits and veggies. If you can’t… “hakuna matata!”

Tips for eating fruits and veggies

nutrients to support the immune system and foods that contain them

The fear of comfort eating

Are you worried that this period of social distancing is going to cause you to just sit on your couch and eat #allthefood…. #allthetime?

You’re not alone.

I’ve heard this from a lot of people, including the hilarious “fat and sassy” lady.

First of all, comfort eating is a totally normal experience! Think about having hot chocolate when you come in from a day of playing outside in the snow. Think about sipping on some chicken noodle soup when you feel unwell.

Sometimes food is like the comforting warm hug you need to boost your spirits. It’s not necessarily a bad habit.

So give yourself some grace in this space and time!

This is not your normal. It will not be your normal and will not dictate your long term habits. Comfort eating has a unique place in this unique time.

So relax.

Comfort eating becomes more of a problem if you no longer feel comforted by the food, if you feel mental anguish and extreme guilt or remorse, or if you’re using food to avoid your emotions.

If you’re feeling that way, I’d love to help you. I teach a step-by-step approach to learning how to overcome the hold food has on you so that you can take full control of your eating. Check out my program, I Quit Overeating.

Come together… over food

While social distancing is going to keep us further from our acquaintances, the upside is that we’ll be getting close and cozy with our families!

I’m a big proponent of eating together as a family without the distraction of phones or TV, but I think this is a great opportunity to lean into this even more. Make it a habit if you haven’t already. There aren’t any busy after-school activity schedules to meet. There aren’t any school pick-ups or drop-off deadlines to meet.

It’s just you and your family, together.

Cook together.

Bake together.

Eat together.

It’s prime time to make some memories in the kitchen and around the table! If it feels a little funny to just sit around the table, print these mealtime conversation starters to kickstart some engaging discussions!

p.s. If you live alone, I’m also thinking of you. Social distancing is going to be especially rough on you. Maybe you could set up FaceTime meal dates with a friend!

If you know someone who lives alone, this would be a great time to reach out to them. 🙂

Stock up on freezer/pantry meals

It’s possible that 30-70% of the world’s population will come down with Covid-19. In order to prepare for actually getting sick and the required post-illness quarantine, it’s time to get cooking and stock up on freezer meals and ingredients for pantry meals!

Here are some of my favourites that freeze well:

And here are some recipes that use mostly pantry items!

Find ways to support others

While this is a hard time for everyone, it’s going to be especially challenging for those that rely on food banks, and those who don’t have the financial means to store up extra food at home.

  • When you’re at the store, buy an extra can of tuna or jar of peanut butter for the food bank.
  • Ask an older adult or someone in quarantine if you can pick up a few groceries for them.

A friend posted the following on Facebook and I thought it was a wonderful idea so I re-shared. Credit to the kind soul who first started it! Imagine the great network of support we could provide if everyone who was able re-posted this?

coronavirus FaceBook help share

These are unprecedented times. Let’s all band together on this common goal and come out the other side a more understanding, more empathic, kinder society!

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