Even during a “normal” week, eating healthy can be a challenge for people across the country. For many, the added pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak may make achieving a healthy diet feel like an especially tall mountain to climb. Registered dietitian Tracy Bonoffski is a lecturer in the UNC Charlotte Department of Kinesiology, and shared simple advice on how to eat right, right now.
Smart dietary choices are always important, are they especially so right now?
Good nutrition is essential to a healthy immune system, which may offer protection from illness and other chronic health conditions. However, there is not one food or supplement that can fully prevent illness from developing. Sound food choices help support the immune system, and choosing foods that are nutrient dense should be the focus of each meal. Nutrient dense foods are typically rich in several of the following: vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and antioxidants. Nutrient dense foods are low in sugar, fat and typically low in calories, and include: fruits, vegetables, rich protein sources (such as lean meats, beans or soy) and whole grains.
Are there some tips to make it easier when options are limited?
When food choices are limited, aim for as much variety as possible.
This will increase the likelihood of providing a spectrum of vitamins and minerals that are vital for good health. Keep in mind, many fruits and vegetables provide "overlapping" health benefits. For example, if you don't have any citrus fruits on hand but you have potatoes, especially sweet potatoes, you'll still be consuming many of the same vitamins you would be if you ate the fruit. A general rule of thumb is to include fresh fruits and vegetables at each meal. Since fresh produce can be unavailable or expensive at times, especially when it's not in season, you can eat canned (try to limit this choice due to the sodium content) and frozen varieties. Blueberries, bananas, grapes and even avocados all freeze very well. This can also be applied to lean meats and whole grain breads. Buy when it's on sale and freeze it for later use.
Most families that do well with eating healthy, plan their meals ahead of time. Many find it helpful to focus on a few favorite meals or recipes, shop with a list and stick to it. Treat yourself or your family to occasional treats but aim for about 80% of the day to come from whole foods.
What about families with young children?
Mealtime with young children should be made to be as enjoyable as possible. However, most parents report mealtime being one of the most stressful times of the day. From a young age, introduce your child to a wide variety of flavors. Most children's tastes are learned by example. If parents are eating fresh, whole foods the child is more likely to enjoy consuming those foods as well. When children are involved with meal time they are more likely to learn sound dietary habits from the start.
Any recommendations on choosing recipes?
Selecting a few "go-to" healthy meals the entire family enjoys will reduce the stress meal time can create. Have every member of the family be "in-charge" of one dinner by selecting a meal idea that includes at least one vegetable. Many people find that recipes containing more than six ingredients can be too complicated and time-consuming. Focus on family favorites that are not only wholesome but simple! Some simple ideas include: overnight oats with fruit, smoothies and using an instant pot or crock pot for stews and soups. The internet is an endless resource of recipes. When meal time becomes overly complicated, the likelihood of resorting to unhealthy, processed options increases.
How should people be thinking about good nutrition right now?
We are living in a tumultuous time, and so much of what we are experiencing is out of our control. This can create a feeling of helplessness and the stress that results can become quite a burden. One area most of us can control is what foods we purchase and prepare for our families each day. Instead of focusing on the negative and what we can't control, focus on the positive which includes choosing foods that promote health, support immunity and increase well-being.