As COVID-19 disrupts life as we know it, you may be adapting to a new lifestyle for an undetermined length of time. All of this change can feel unsettling and remove the anchors that make you feel grounded.
If you’re overindulging in food or alcohol in an effort to self-soothe, you’re not alone. We spoke with pro ultrarunner Magda Boulet, and Registered Dietician Susan Kitchen, about healthy choices and self-care during this time of stress and uncertainty.
Stress is often a culprit when we’re tempted to overindulge. According to Boulet, stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which can increase cravings for foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt.
Boulet says the best way to tackle stress is to acknowledge the trigger behind it. “If you’re stressed because you need to process information, getting some exercise and talking to someone can help,” she says.
She also finds that mindful breathing is a good way to calm down. Taking a few quiet moments could be exactly what you need.
“And, if you’re truly hungry, making good choices with food is the right way to go,” says Boulet. No need to skip meals or avoid food, just keep healthy options on hand to make it easier.
Runners already stress their bodies enough through training. If you’re emotionally stressed as well, nutrition becomes even more important as a recovery tool.
Boulet says she always considers immune-boosting food important when she puts together a meal.
“The body doesn’t recognize whether stress is emotional or physical, “ she says. “To help it recover you need food that is nutrient-dense.” She recommends plant-heavy meals that are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Planning is always important, but with the uncertainty of COVID-19, it becomes even more necessary.
Registered dietician Susan Kitchen says, “Make a list of foods you'd like to eat to follow a healthy regiment.”
Many communities are finding that longer-lasting foods have disappeared from shelves but fresh ones are still available. So, Kitchen recommends getting as much of the fresh stuff as you can.
Trying to avoid the store? “You can potentially have them delivered,” she says.
If you stocked up on tempting treats, Kitchen has some ideas.
“I don’t advocate throwing anything away, “ she says. But you can make it less available. If a trigger food is calling your name when you’re stressed, she says, “Freeze some of it. Package it in portions and use that after a meal.”
Generally, don’t put yourself in a position to constantly grapple with self-control. “Keep healthy options you do want to snack on, whether that’s celery, peanut butter, bananas, apples, hummus or Greek yogurt, for example.”
In short, there are plenty of delicious foods that are nutritious and still satisfying.
“Carve time out for yourself,” says Kitchen. “Don't let yourself get too hungry, as it can make it harder to make good decisions.”
If you’re working from home, plan a balanced lunch at a reasonable time, along with scheduled breaks to move, and get some sun.
To keep things interesting (and nutritious), Boulet focuses on colorful foods. “This week my theme is anything orange. Like carrots, ginger,and turmeric. I have fun with it and it’s immune-boosting.”
When all else fails, she says, if you’re not sure how to get more veggies into your diet, an easy way to work them in is with a morning smoothie. You don’t need to bake or have a lot of skill in the kitchen.
If you want to eat more veggies and don’t know where to start, Boulet suggests making a soup.
“Soups are a great way to sneak in fruits, vegetables and spices that you may not be used to. You can throw in the dark, leafy vegetables,” she says. “Cruciferous vegetables go really well in soup, like cabbage. Variety is key to getting those minerals and vitamins.”
Boulet is a fan of fermented foods, which are rich in probiotic bacteria that benefit the gut and the mind, as well.
Boulet says, “There’s a high correlation between gut health, mood and the brain. Serotonin is found in your gut, and in order to increase it, you’ve got to feed your gut.”
Fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, miso and sauerkraut are excellent choices.
“I’m picky with the quality of fermented foods,” says Boulet, adding that if you have a choice between shelf-stable varieties vs. refrigerated, go for the refrigerated options with live cultures.
By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.