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COVID-19 Affecting Your Diet? Here’s How to Get Back on Track

Exercise and Nutrition
Author name: Lee Health

COVID-19 diet graphic

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has shifted many of our daily routines, including the ways we eat. Maybe you’re hitting the fast-food drive-thru more often, or stocking up on packaged goods, or cooking more at home than usual.

And let’s not forget about unhealthy behaviors like “stress eating” caused by the pandemic. Now’s the time to take care of your body, which includes a balanced, nutritious diet.

Aikaterina Galeos, RDN, a Community Outreach dietitian with Lee Health, shares tips for creating a nutritious lifestyle that can improve your health and your life.

Q: Because of the pandemic, many of us are feeling more stressed and anxious. As a result, more of us are prone to emotional eating. What is emotional eating, and how do we recognize its triggers?

A: Emotional eating is eating out of emotion rather than hunger cues. This means you could be eating to celebrate something or having feelings of sadness, anger, or loneliness. Usually, triggers tend to be stress-related.

The best way to minimize emotional eating is to recognize your triggers and write them in a journal. Keep this journal with you as one way to reflect and learn about yourself and your emotions. Practicing regular meditation and other relaxing activities during times of stress can also help minimize your emotional eating.

Q: How does a well-balanced diet of nutritious foods support a strong immune system?

A: The food we eat gives our body instructions on how to work. For example, (exaggerating a bit), if we eat Twinkies and drink coke throughout the day—our bodies will act like a Twinkie! On the other hand, if we eat whole foods, fruits and vegetables our bodies will act whole and healthy.

Our gut microbiome plays a key role in our immunity. The bacteria in our gut can turn our immunity on and off. What keeps our gut microbiome happy includes colorful, fiber-containing foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other whole plant foods. When we eat unhealthy, over-processed foods, our bodies can undergo increased inflammation, increased adrenaline and increased cortisol, which, in turn, decreases our immunity.

Q: Won’t plant-based supplements like superfood, protein and other “green” powders give me the nutrients we need?

A: Not exactly. Picture this: A very unhealthy, overweight man with type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other chronic diseases who does not exercise and take care of his body. Now picture a healthy, in-shape, health-conscious man with NO chronic diseases who eats healthy most of the time.

Will a green supplement help the man with chronic diseases if he is not doing anything else for his well-being and health? Probably not.

Will it help the healthy individual who focuses on health every day? Most likely, yes.

Supplements are just as they sound. Meant to supplement your diet, not to replace something. They are an insurance policy on what we do day to day. Plant-based supplements and any supplement, in general, are meant to bridge the gap to an otherwise healthy lifestyle—not to make up for a poor lifestyle.

Q: Comfort foods have a reputation for being unhealthy. Aren’t there any comfort foods that aren’t completely bad for us to eat?

A: It is all a matter of perspective. You can absolutely make some of your comfort foods healthier. However, with that being said, comfort foods are not something you eat every day. It is something you want once in a while to warm your heart and make you feel at home. When a client of mine has an occasional craving for comfort food, I usually tell them to go for it.

If you are having cravings every other day, then we need to dig deeper into your health, blood work and eating habits to figure out what’s going on. Maybe your body is lacking something your diet should include.

One way to approach your cravings is to exercise the 80/20 rule. This means that 80 percent of the time you can follow the rules and eat healthfully, and the rest of the time (20 percent), it’s okay to eat comfort foods. We’re all human, and we deserve our comfort food from time to time.

Q: I’m snacking all the time now that I work from home all week. What foods can I choose to eat that are tasty but won’t lead to weight gain if I eat them in moderation?

A: Do not keep foods in the house that you do not want to eat. Working from home is a prime example of people walking to their pantries several times a day and opening the fridge door, magically waiting for new food to appear.

Some great snack foods include nuts and seeds, dates, cut-up fruits and veggies, and other nourishing-type foods, or what I like to call “functional foods.”

If you are finding yourself searching for a snack or craving something but don’t really feel hungry, here are my tips:

  1. Drink a glass of water.
  2. Wait 10 minutes.
  3. Brush your teeth.
  4. Give yourself permission to snack. But preplan it and make it official. Don’t just mindlessly grab a bag of chips. Advance planning goes a long way toward healthier eating patterns.

Q: My grocery store has a great selection of fruits such as apples, including organic produce. Is produce from the grocery chains just as good as the apples I could buy from a local farm?

A: Buying local is the best thing you can do for your community, the environment, and your health.  Fruits and vegetables have the highest nutrition in them the moment they are harvested. The more time that passes between harvesting and when they are consumed, the more nutrition, vitamins and minerals are lost.

Q: Tell me one last bit about stress – can a healthy diet really help me manage stress better?

Stress can mess with hormonal hunger cues. Ghrelin and leptin are two hunger hormones that affect our appetite. Ghrelin makes us hungry, and leptin decreases our appetite. When we have excess stress, our bodies release cortisol, a naturally occurring steroid hormone that plays a key role when we’re stressed. But when our cortisol levels remain elevated, that can make us hungry—this is not in our heads. There’s a whole gut-brain connection going on. 


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Aikaterina (Kat) Galeos, RDN, CSG, has been a registered dietitian for 16 years. She holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition from The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). She is a Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). She manages a teaching kitchen with Lee Health Coconut Point.

“I grew up in a Greek household and learned to cook and really appreciate home cooking from my mother. I love food, cooking, yoga, running, sweating, and teaching people about nutrition, food and health.”

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