Though the headlines have lost much of their shock value, COVID-19 is still having a huge impact on many people’s thoughts, routines and motivations. In the midst of the varied disruptions the past year or so has brought, there’s one that is sometimes overlooked: our complex and sometimes destructive relationship with food.
Read on for five great tips to help you to eat healthy in these stressful times.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed a general trend to start hoarding all kinds of food, including basic ingredients like flour and ground beef,” said Corporate Chef and Recipe Developer Andrea Buckett. “People were afraid of scarcity, which is completely understandable. No one knew what was happening and fear became the driving force. So I started working on recipes that incorporated those staples. I also tried to be really budget conscious since many people were out of work.”
Buckett’s career has included time as a culinary instructor, caterer, cooking school manager and food writer. She believes most individuals’ eating habits were altered by COVID-19.
“I think most people know what healthy food choices look like, but we need to dig in and think, ‘Okay, I know that in this stressful time but I need to continue to have fibre and good proteins and fats.’ It’s tempting to view everything as comfort food and get into the mindset of ‘I deserve this.’ “
Unfortunately, when everyone was stuck at home in the early days of the pandemic, people turned to cooking and baking to pass the time and relieve stress.
“There was a trend toward doing things like having cocktails and baking bread because getting back into that comfort food stage, of course, makes us feel better.”
Kyle Byron, a Toronto-based nutritionist, agrees that the temptation to indulge in comfort food is heightened during times of uncertainty.
“Everyone is an emotional eater to some extent. When you eat something you enjoy, that’s an emotional choice,” he said. “The vast majority of us overeat when we’re stressed because we get these nice ‘feel-good’ chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, inserted into our brain. It’s also just something fun to do. In Canada, the pandemic has certainly inspired a spike in weight gain.”
When it comes to weight gain, Byron cites an additional circumstance that is often overlooked: parents in quarantine with their children.
“A problem for some people was being exposed to their kids’ junk food. Before the pandemic, they would get up in the morning and have a coffee or a smoothie. Then, they’d go to work and eat something healthy at lunch and only have their kid’s food to contend with in the evening. Now, they’re surrounded all day with things like bagels, granola bars and sugary cereals. I advise my clients in those situations to just get those things out of the house. However, some of them preferred not to have that confrontation with their kids and, instead of changing the culture of food in their house, resigned themselves to gaining weight”
For the average person, overindulging in comfort food or sugary snacks can damage their health and require some lifestyle adjustments to get back to a more balanced diet. However, for people with mental health conditions such as eating disorders, the stress brought on by COVID-19 had the potential to be very dangerous.
“When we experience a situation with a lot of stress, our bodies react just like they would if we were running away from a bear,” explained Ottawa-based Clinical Psychologist Dr. Melisa Arias-Valenzuela. “During situations where there’s no clear response or solution to a problem, we might want to turn to something we can control. In the case of COVID-19, there’s not much we can do to control it except adhere to rules. So I think a lot of people, especially those with eating disorders, turned toward their bodies and food intake to try to regain that control.”
Tips to Eat Healthy During the Pandemic
Here are five easy-to-follow tips to help you prioritize healthy eating during a pandemic or any other stressful time you may face.
Stick to the Basics
In North America, we are inundated with multiple food choices and elaborate diet plans. It’s perfectly acceptable to stick with normal ingredients and focus on staples such as fruits and vegetables. Prioritize what works for you, buy what you can afford and don’t worry about following every social media trend.
Create a Safe Experience
Especially for those struggling with eating disorders, it’s important to create a feeling of safety around food. You can do this by engaging your senses when you eat and taking the time to slow down and enjoy your meal. Food and human connection also share a very strong bond; if you’re sharing a meal with someone, be present and enjoy their company.
Keep a Regular Schedule
Dr. Arias-Valenzuela is a strong advocate of keeping a regular schedule around meals, often advising her clients to eat small ones every three to four hours.
“I tell them to think about eating like a baby, because the body will feel safe if it knows it will eat again in a certain number of hours and stay protected against potential famine,” she explained.
Buying locally grown food not only benefits your community’s farmers, it’s also fresher and more nutritious due to being harvested when it’s ready and only travelling a short distance to reach your table. To ensure the majority of your food is local and in season, shop at farmer’s markets, look for in-season food at the grocery store, or grow your own by joining a community garden.
Focus on Your Feelings
More than the nutrients in the food itself, healthy eating is about how your body feels during and after a meal. Staying in tune with these feelings will bring greater understanding and awareness around the relationship between food and your body.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, Eating Disorder Hope can help you find treatment centres, support groups and other resources across Canada.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.