It’s even more important than ever to make healthy food choices to keep ourselves healthy and our immune systems working well. That doesn’t just mean limiting treats, which is easier said than done. It means eating enough healthy food to fuel our bodies and our brains properly – eating wholegrains, including some protein with every meal and snack and most importantly, eating plenty of veg and fruit. These are full of vitamins, minerals and fibre to support our health and immune system. We know lots of people are struggling to stay on track and there are three common ‘themes’ that we are being asked about
Save time, effort, money …..
We might have thought we had loads of time on our hands when stuck at home, but many of us are busier than ever trying to work, teach, cook, clean, run errands… and may be finding ourselves under more financial uncertainty. It can be easier to grab a ready meal or order a take-away and this is fine occasionally, but not ideal on a regular basis. Tips to help
- Plan your meals – whether you plan a week or even a day or two in advance, this can be a big time, stress and money saver. This is also a big help when it comes to shopping and given how difficult grocery shopping can be now, planning your meals makes it much easier to stick to a weekly shop. It also means we are much less likely to waste food, which is another issue we are being asked about
- Batch cook or meal prep when you can. We might have done this anyway when going into work but many of us have already slipped out of the habit. Try to spend an hour or two when you are less busy making a couple of big batches of soup, pasta sauce, casserole, chilli. Stick them in the fridge or freezer in a portion size that can feed the family. Then you can have a few guilt free nights off cooking on busy days
- Keep it simple. We are being bombarded with well intentioned information on all sorts of topics including cooking and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed – ‘infobesity’! Lots of us are embarking on cooking projects like making sourdough bread which is great. But for the most part, just keep it simple and just try one or two new recipes a week
- Keep your store cupboard stocked with some key items. No need to bulk buy! Having a few simple ingredients in your fridge, freezer and cupboard mean that you can throw together a healthy meal in 15 or 20 minutes. See our handout for more information on our store cupboard essentials.
Avoid weight gain
It might seem trivial to talk about weight in the current circumstances. But it’s the topic we are being asked about the most and does have an important bearing on our health. If you are finding yourself stress eating and gaining weight, it’s probably a good indication that you are not making the best food (or drink!) choices to keep you healthy. I am not here to take away one of the pleasures still available to us though. A few tips might help
- Make it easier for yourself by limiting the treats you buy. It’s too hard to avoid them, especially if you are working or schooling from the kitchen table
- Chose healthy baking projects. Baking with our kids is a great way to spend time with them, but most baking projects are for sweet treats, which then need to be eaten. That’s no problem once or twice a week and much better than buying treats, but it’s also bringing more temptation in. Chose some healthy baking projects instead like wholegrain or porridge bread, soup or an easy dinner. Those will also save you time too and are great skills to teach!
- Try intermittent fasting ‘lite’. Intermittent Fasting is a huge topic, with lots of caveats, pros and cons. But must of us can try a ‘lite’ version of this by fasting for 12 hours overnight, finishing the day with our evening meal by 7pm and not eating breakfast until after 7am the next day. This also cuts out the stress eating and drinking that can become an easy habit to slip into. Even doing it 5 days per week will help
Help to manage stress levels
Even if the current situation is starting to feel a bit more ‘normal’, it’s still a massively stressful time for all of us, causing many of us to behave or eat in ways we wouldn’t normally. While of course we can’t control the overall situation beyond staying at home and complying with guidelines, we can take some steps to support our stress levels
- Eating regularly throughout the day can help to support energy and stress. Even if you are fasting for 12 hours overnight, once you are in your ‘feeding window’ you should be eating about every 4 hours, which for most of us will be 3 meals and 1 healthy snack
- Stay well hydrated, with water! Our bodies are about 70% water, which is essential brain function and energy. Even mild dehydration can reduce concentration and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. We all have different requirements, but a good target for most of us is 1.5 – 2L throughout the day. Have a bottle of jug of water on your table or drink herbal tea if you don’t like water
- Watch your alcohol intake. It’s easy to slip into the habit of a few drinks every evening to close off a stressful day, but not helpful for stress management or for our waistlines. Try to have a few alcohol-free days per week and set yourself some limits e.g. only at weekends. Official and generous (in relation to other countries) guidelines in Ireland are <17 units for a man, <11 units for a woman. One unit is ½ pint of beer or 100ml wine.
- Limit coffee to 2 cups per day. Caffeine is a stimulant and too much is not going to help us manage stress levels. Tea and even green tea have about half of the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, so don’t overdo them either. Bear in mind that caffeine has a half life of 6 hours, which means that 6 hours after you have had that mug of coffee, half of that caffeine is still floating around your system. This can impair your ability to get proper restful sleep, so aim to drink your caffeine by lunchtime
- Take breaks to breathe and exercise. We know that breathing exercises and bring down stress levels, even in 2 minutes. There are lots of tips online including 2 minute breathe bubble. Building some exercise into our day at home, following an online class or getting outside to make the most of our 2km radius during the day can help us to manage stress and sleep better
- Prioritise sleep. It’s one of the most important steps in supporting stress and for our immune health and most of us need 7 ½ – 8 hours. Limiting caffeine and alcohol and getting some exercise will help. So will restricting our exposure to blue light from any electronic devises for at least an hour before bed, especially if looking at news items. Instead, aim to get to bed a bit earlier and establish a relaxing bed-time routine – stretching / shower or bath, cup of herbal tea, reading….
Rather than trying to do everything, just pick one or two of these tips that you think will make the biggest difference for you and focus on them. Hope you stay safe and well.
Heather Leeson, Nutritional Therapist, Glenville Nutrition Ireland