Remaining healthy during a pandemic is a top priority for everyone in the world (literally) right now, but keeping up with exercise routines and finding the motivation to cook nutritious meals while staying at home has proved to be a challenge for many. From stress eating to not being able to find your staples at the grocery store, diets have changed as quickly as the world has.
We spoke with Joanna Pustilnik, M.S., R.D., CDE, CPT, a Northern Virginia dietitian at Mind Body Health and the owner of Bodacious Nutrition, to find out what she’s eating through the pandemic and to get her expert advice on what types of food our bodies really need right now. See highlights from our conversation below.
What are the top three foods you have been turning to during the stay-at-home order? Why are those your staples?
Hands down, my family and I love our beans. Canned chickpeas or black beans, bagged lentils or a bean-based (like red lentil) pasta are all versatile, shelf-stable proteins and are nutrient dense, and provide quality, plant-based carbohydrates. I’ve been making a lot of lentil soup, like harira soup, adding beans to tacos or burritos, and having easy pasta dishes.
Frozen fruit is super useful as well. I have a lot of smoothies or make compote for my oatmeal. It’s flash frozen shortly after being picked so equally as nutritious as fresh and sometimes more so depending on the food miles of the fresh fruit. Vitamin C and E are very integral for immune support, so when you can get to the grocery or get a grocery delivery, stock up on frozen mango, pineapple, strawberries and whatever else you can get your hands on!
I also can’t live without my bags of grains. I have quick-cook bags of quinoa and brown rice, as well as farro, barley, quinoa and others. They can be incorporated into so many dishes—soups, stir-fry dishes, curries or a simple bean, rice and guacamole burrito—and are associated with increased immune measures and better gut health.
What trends have you been noticing with clients’ eating habits during the pandemic?
There have been some struggles with food access and using shelf-stable food has become more necessary. Takeout delivery through apps has gone up however, as people are feeling stressed about cooking and making it to the grocery store. A WebMD poll found 69% of people reported weight gain during COVID-19 quarantine and, of those, 70% cited stress eating as the cause. I’ve noticed that emotional eating has been a challenge among my clients, and I’ve been encouraging at least three balanced meals a day and honoring hunger to determine snacks as a way to help decrease vulnerability to stress eating.
If readers are buying less fresh produce in order to avoid going to the grocery store every week, what should they look for in the frozen and packaged sections to find nutritious meals?
In no particular order, here’s a list of 15 immune-boosting packaged foods that might be helpful:
- Frozen fruit (mango, pineapple, berries, peaches)
- Dried fruit (raisins, apricots, craisins, dates)
- Frozen vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, mixed veggies, bell peppers, broccoli, peas, butternut squash)
- Canned or bagged beans (chickpeas, black beans, cannellini, navy, pinto, lentil)
- Quick-cook or bagged whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, farro, barley)
- High-fiber pasta (whole grain varieties, bean-based, soba)
- Nuts/seeds and nut/seed butter (almonds/almond butter, sunflower seeds/sunflower seed butter, peanuts/peanut butter, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, pistachios)
- No-salt-added tomato products (canned diced or crushed tomato, tomato paste, pasta sauce, salsa)
- No-sugar-added hot whole grain breakfast cereal (oatmeal, buckwheat porridge)
- No-salt-added and not-cream-based canned vegetables (corn, green peas, green beans)
- Herbs and dried spices or canned pastes (cinnamon, oregano, thyme, basil, ginger, garlic powder, turmeric, canned curry paste)
- Low-sodium bean-based soups and vegetable broth (lentil soup, black bean soup, split pea soup)
- Whole grain, rye crispbreads or seed-based crackers (Mary’s Gone Crackers, Back to Nature, Triscuits, Wasa Crispbread)
- Cartons or cans of milk (canned coconut milk, cartons of rice, soy and almond milk)
- Shelf-stable or long-lasting, non-processed soy products (miso, vacuum-packaged tofu, tempeh, soymilk)
Why is nutrition important right now? Is it OK for readers to indulge for comfort during the pandemic?
Nutrition is important because it is immune modulating. There are two types of immunity, innate and acquired, and what we eat can increase measures of immunity for both. Age, over-exercising, surgery, high mental load or other physical stress can decrease immunity, but food counteracts this and makes us resilient to disease. Adequate calories and protein are particularly important, and eating a varied diet high in plant-based foods (whole grains, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables) is the most immune-boosting way to eat because it provides the most vitamins and minerals, as well as plant fiber, which pulls toxins out of the body and feeds the gut bacteria. The gut maintains important pathways for the immune system and manages inflammation levels in the body. Plant fiber increases good bacteria and therefore decreases inflammation.
Part of normal eating is absolutely eating for comfort sometimes. I encourage making eating meaningful by planning your sweet intake when possible, sharing the eating occasion with others if you can and setting it up as an event. This will help increase mindfulness and give you a sense of control around the eating occasion. In my household, for example, we have family “cookie time” for my daughter, husband and I where we each have two cookies and soy milk and talk about the day. It has become part of our routine and is super fun to figure out what cookies we should have next. Food should be celebrated; restricting food often leads us to overeating that food. Let’s eat the food we love in a mindful way.
How can readers curb stress eating?
Stress eating refers to any eating where the person feels driven by the emotion rather than their physiological hunger and fullness cues. It could be overeating, binge eating or haphazard grazing that leads to guilt or more stress. Cravings originate from the mesolimbic dopamine system and involve memory and reward. When we have the memory that a food gave us a reward, we are triggered to crave that food. We can be vulnerable to this craving when we are under-eating or restricting, not meeting our basic needs such as relational needs, sleep or satisfaction, and also if we feel a loss of autonomy by having food rules.
I’m an intuitive-eating-based dietitian, so I highly value tuning into our own body wisdom to help determine what and how much to eat. If stress eating is causing even more stress or guilt, we should absolutely take a look at the overall meal pattern, the adequacy of the diet’s calories, protein, fats, carbohydrates, nutrient density, the satisfaction of the diet and if we have any forbidden foods or dieting behaviors. Working with a dietitian virtually during this time could be of great advantage to help take a deeper look into the reasons behind emotional eating.
But we also need to have a high level of self-compassion as eating behaviors are complex and not typically within the realm of “willpower” which is a limited resource.
Which packaged foods do you eat on a regular basis
The list above includes a lot of them. I also have been loving the Daiya Vegan mac and cheese boxes, which I mix with green peas or chickpeas and a little nutritional yeast for added B12 and protein. My toddler loves them! It has been a super easy lunch when I am watching both my toddler and my 7-month-old and don’t have time or energy to cook. We also ordered Veestro meals which are pre-made meals from fresh ingredients and are totally plant-based. Beyond Meat is another packaged food that’s been helpful for fun cookouts in the backyard and Memorial Day. I also love my Justin’s Peanut Butter cups!
How can nutrition and diet help those suffering from COVID-19 right now? Are there any specific things those who have the virus should be eating to aid in recovery?
Elevated blood glucose or high levels of simple sugars can decrease white blood cells significantly. Starch from whole foods doesn’t have this impact. Eat carbs from whole foods when possible, but don’t restrict. Enjoy your favorite sweets foods in moderation when possible and mindfully. I created an “Immune Food Prescription” that can also be downloaded from my site (bodaciousnutrition.com), along with my “15 Immune-Boosting Packaged Foods” and a list of meal ideas.
Is there anything else that you think is important for our readers to know right now?
During this time, we all need self-love and connection with others. If you need support right now, don’t be afraid to seek it out and be open about your needs. We’ll get through this together.
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