Eating healthily during lockdown

Post written for Mind, Richmond weekly newsletter

For most of us, working from home means normal routines are out the window, so it’s important to establish new routines.  This includes getting up as you would normally, getting dressed (suit optional!), sticking to regular mealtimes and going to bed at your usual time.  Without these boundaries the hours and days can blend together, we can lose productivity and the temptation for mindless eating increases.

There is mounting evidence that a healthy lifestyle is important in maintaining a healthy immune system and improving recovery times when ill.  However for many people, eating healthy while in lockdown can be difficult and bad habits can all too easily form.  These are my tips for healthy eating during lockdown.

Eat regular meals 

Eating 3 regular balanced meals a day (rather than picking throughout the day) keeps us full for longer and helps prevent cravings that can trigger unhealthy snacking. You don’t need to eat a special diet, but you should prioritise variety and colour (eat the rainbow) to ensure you’re getting the nutrients needed to support a healthy immune system, in particular:

  • Vitamin A (liver, fish, dairy, eggs are sources; orange fruit and vegetables, broccoli, dark leafy greens contain carotenoids which the body converts to vitamin A)
  • B vitamins, particularly B6 (poultry, fish, egg yolk, yeast extract, sesame seeds and fruit and vegetables) and B12, which is often deficient in vegan diets (meat, fish, milk, eggs, dairy, fortified food
  • Vitamin C (kiwi fruit, citrus, papaya, berries, red and yellow peppers, kale, broccoli, cauliflower)
  • Vitamin D – we’re still allowed outside for daily exercise and it’s important to do this if possible. In the UK our bodies can only make vitamin D from the sun during the months of March to October, so now is the time to be replenishing our stores after winter. While sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, small amounts can be obtained from fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna), liver, egg yolks and fortified foods
  • Iron (haeme-iron from animal-based sources and non-haeme iron from plant based sources such as whole grains, nut and seeds, green vegetables. To enhance the body’s absorption of non-haeme iron make sure to combine these foods with a source of vitamin C)
  • Zinc (eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, oats, whole grains, meat and shellfish)
  • Protein – try to include it at each meal. Protein is satiating and keeps us full.  If you don’t have protein in the fridge other good sources are canned beans or lentils (also a good source of fibre, minerals, and B vitamins), nut butters
  • A note on the gut microbiome, which plays an important role in our immune health. Probiotics are a type of beneficial bacteria or yeast which helps support the ‘good bacteria’ in our gut.  While taking probiotics in a supplement form is an option, you can also obtain probiotics from food by eating live, natural yoghurts, fermented vegetables, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha.  Ensuring your diet is rich in plant fibres will provide a good source of prebiotics, which help feed these bacteria.

Plan meals in advance

We all know shopping for some items is difficult at the moment so knowing what you’re going to cook ahead of time is even more important.  Having a store of healthy foods in the freezer makes it easier to be healthy and avoid making unhealthy choices. Things like stews, dhal, chillies, soups, curries, bolognaise/pasta sauces all freeze well. Try to keep some pantry staples – sugar-free nut butters (full of vitamins & minerals as well as healthy fats and protein); canned fish (rich in omega-3, protein and if calcium if bones are eaten); canned tomatoes and pulses, sachets of easy-cook-whole grain rice, frozen fruit and vegetables are all quick and easy to add to meals.

Healthy snacks 

While eating 3 meals a day will mean you’re less likely to snack, sometimes you just need a little something. But if you’re snacking all the time and potentially consuming unwanted calories first ask yourself if you’re actually hungry or just bored?  Sometimes a glass of water or mug of herbal tea is enough.  And if you’re struggling to keep your hands out of the biscuit jar then don’t leave them lying around, instead have healthy options available. For example oat cakes, apple or banana with nut butter, a handful of nuts, yoghurts (no added sugar), or home-made smoothies (the greener the better and include some protein like nuts).  Always include protein to help keep you feeling full longer.

Set yourself boundaries, for example restricting alcohol to weekends only, don’t get into the habit of thinking you’ll have dessert every night as a pick me up during this difficult period.

Keep moving

Most of us have gained a bit of time each day not having to commute, so why not use this time to exercise.  There are so many free online exercise classes available, or simply go for a walk if you’re not isolating.  You will likely be more sedentary working from home, so keeping active and exercising is important.  Being sedentary also means burning less calories each day, which can add up over the weeks, so be mindful not to let extra calories creep into your diet if you don’t want to gain weight.

Other lifestyle factors are important too – make sure you’re drinking enough water, most people need 1.5 to 2 litres per day.  And get enough sleep to help strengthen your immune system. Take advantage of early nights to catch up on your sleep, getting 8 hours a night has become much more achievable!

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