As Americans stay hunkered down at home in virus-avoidance mode, our eating habits are changing — for the better and the worse.
If you take a glass-half-full approach, the news is pretty good. People say they are eating more home-cooked meals and more fresh vegetables and fruits, according to a recent Harris poll, and many believe their eating has actually become healthier since the COVID-19 outbreak began in the United States.
That’s encouraging, because research finds that more home cooking results in improved weight and health in adults, says a recent report by the Global Council on Brain Health. The nutrients in foods like whole grains, nuts and seeds, and fresh produce are also linked to helping improve brain function and mood.
More Americans isolated at home are trying new recipes and improving their cooking and baking skills. We’re definitely baking more sweet stuff — sales of baking powder and sugar are up — but the even bigger spike in flour and yeast sales show millions of Americans are avidly turning out loaves of healthy homemade bread.
On the other hand, the stress of the virus has upped our vices as well. The latest survey by Nielsen shows alcohol sales are soaring and so are marijuana sales. Americans are also exercising less and all those comfy, elastic-waistband pants may be disguising our weight gain from eating a lot more snack food and drinking more soda. People are worried about gaining what some call the “quarantine 15” from too much stress-eating.
But dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, who has a private nutrition counseling practice in Washington, D.C., says she’s not too worried.
Via phone and video calls she counsels a wide range of people, from college students to retirees, and for the most part, they’re telling her that being forced to stay home has had a positive effect on their health and eating habits.
“Many of my clients tell me they are losing weight because they’re not going out to eat as much,” she said in an interview. Others tell her they’re making an effort to order healthy groceries and cook with more fresh food.
One longtime client with type 2 diabetes, who had struggled to control his blood sugar level, recently emailed Tallmadge to tell her that “for first time in 20 years, his blood sugar level was down to a healthy range,” which he credited to fewer restaurant meals.
And a college student client, who worried about gaining weight while stuck at home with her parents, “is thriving. She and her mother are experimenting with new recipes.”
This is not to say that Tallmadge doesn’t hear from those giving in to bad habits, such as snacking too much in front of the TV, spending too many sedentary hours at the computer or not getting outside for a daily walk.
Her strategy includes helping people bring more structure to their day with a schedule “that is as close as possible to their normal pre-isolation routine.”
She stresses the importance of regular meal and sleep times, getting outdoors in the sunlight and some sort of exercise, whether it’s online classes or a walk in the neighborhood.
She’s also blunt about the potential consequences of letting healthy habits slide. “I tell them that not exercising and eating poorly means their immune system won’t be up to par for fighting off this virus.” Drinking too much alcohol can hamper the immune system as well.
Here are some of Tallmadge’s suggestions for staying healthy during isolation at home:
- Make a schedule. “Whether you’re working or not, you need a schedule to give your day structure,” says Tallmadge. It’s best for your brain function and body clock to wake up and go to sleep at regular times. Scheduling regular mealtimes helps control appetite and increase feelings of fullness and satisfaction, which reduces excess snacking. A daily schedule should also include times for work or chores, exercise and relaxation.
- Soak up a little sun. Getting outside in the sunlight should be part of every day. Tallmadge urges those who get caught up with work at the computer to set an hourly alarm to remind them to go outside, “even if it’s only for five minutes. It’s that important.” Sunlight elevates the body’s levels of vitamin D and may elevate serotonin, a natural chemical believed to reduce depression and anxiety and improve sleeping, eating and digestion.
- Stock up on healthy foods. “Everything improves when you eat healthfully and are active,” says Tallmadge, and spending more time at home gives you the opportunity to up your cooking game. When planning your weekly grocery order, Tallmadge suggests focusing on vitamin-rich whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as yogurt for its probiotics that help digestion. The Global Council on Brain Health also recommends including fish and seafood for their brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. —Candy Sagon