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5 Tips for Eating Healthy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

For people living with chronic illness, a nutritious diet can be one piece of the puzzle.

fruits and vegetables on a pink background

The COVID-19 pandemic has almost everyone spending more time at home – which just happens to be where the food is.

Some report they’ve gained the dreaded “pandemic 15,” a cousin to the “freshman 15” acquired when students go off to college.

“We are eating to feel something we want to feel, like pleasure or comfort. We also are eating in order to avoid feeling something we are not willing to experience, such as anxiety, boredom, or loneliness,” said Lorrie Gray, a life coach in California who works with people who have rare diseases and chronic illness. 

For many of us, regular routines, including those that govern what we eat, went out the window. Before the pandemic, you might have packed a portion-controlled lunch and took it with you to the office. Now, the refrigerator is standing by all day for frequent meals and snacks.

Those who are managing rare and serious diseases could face more challenges right now when it comes to eating healthy, Gray and other experts said. Those with immune system problems, like primary immunodeficiency, are likely avoiding grocery stores and restaurants, forcing them to adapt to online ordering and home deliveries. Those services are out there, but they can be expensive and require more advance planning than just popping by the store to pick up something for dinner. Without healthy food in the house, we might just reach for the mac and cheese.

It goes beyond just weight control. Though nutrition science remains complicated, there’s little question that a healthy diet from a variety of food groups – lean protein, healthy fats, plenty of vegetables and fruits – pays off.

Mark Windle, a registered dietician in the United Kingdom, has 27 years of experience working with the National Health Service. Here’s what he recommends: “Pursue a healthy eating diet, high in antioxidants, particularly brightly colored fruit and veg, and vitamin D, found in oily fish, eggs and milk.” Aim for five servings of fruit and vegetable each day to get your antioxidants and fiber, he said.

A lot of people know, at least generally, which foods contribute to a nutritious diet. But consistently buying and preparing them is another matter. Getting a regular supply of fresh produce can be a struggle without frequent trips to the store. And even if you can get fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s often a race to use them before they wilt, soften and go bad. Windle has a solution to that problem and it’s our first tip.

1. Stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables, Windle said. They’ll be handy for a longer stretch and compare well with fresh when it comes to nutrition. Frozen berries can be tossed into a yogurt smoothie or thawed quickly for a sweet treat. The expert cooks at Milk Street recently offered a quick lesson in how to bring maximum flavor and even a little char to frozen vegetables. Also consider canned vegetables and shelf-stable packaged fruits.

2. Check with your doctor about nutrition and dietary needs specific to your health or condition. That’s a given and can help you avoid junk science and fads that aren’t good for anyone.

3. Avoid “inflammatory foods.” Inflammation is a buzz word in nutrition, but it’s based on real research. Some foods appear to affect the levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. And inflammation is linked to a variety of health problems. The Mayo Clinic provides a list of recommended foods, which include whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

4. Rethink snacks. Think of snacks as opportunities for nutrition, said Lisa Hugh, a registered dietician in Maryland who works with chronic disease patients. Try combining two food groups in a snack, typically one protein and one carbohydrate. Some ideas: cheese and crackers, peanut butter and toast, and nuts and fruit.

 “Snacks might even be some leftovers,” Hugh said.

But once in a while, it’s OK to indulge in a bona fide treat, said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a pediatrics professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Control portions by buying ice cream and chips in single-serve packaging. It can help to pick one day of the week for this kind of snacking, Ayoob said.

5. Find sources of enjoyment that aren’t food. By sticking to a list when doing an online grocery order, you’ll control the foods that are most available to you, said Elliott Reimers, a certified nutrition coach in Michigan. Then focus on finding fun and engrossing activities that keep you from eating out of boredom, he said. Sinking into something can be a plus for emotional health, too.

“Keeping the mind busy helps you avoid focusing on how your illness is affecting you. For example, taking an online art class can have a great calming effect that helps you cope with stress,” Reimers said.