May 1, 2020

COVID-19 diet: UCalgary nutrition expert offers tips on eating well

Back away from that screen and embrace healthier snacks, low-cal drinks, and working with your hands

You’ve heard of the Freshman 15, the belief that students gain 15 pounds in their first year at college or university. What about the Quarantine 15?

As everyone focuses on flattening the COVID-19 curve, many of us are not paying close attention to how much we consume. Those Instagram posts of pudgy sourdough loaves and homemade cocktails are fuelling growth — and not only around our middles.

Flour and yeast have been flying off shelves for weeks as grocery shoppers stock up. Alcohol sales reported by some provinces' liquor commissions spiked in March, compared to a year earlier: up 40 per cent in British Columbia and as much as 70 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador. One-quarter of Canadians (aged 35 to 54) are drinking more while at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a poll done for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction. The lack of a regular schedule, stress, and boredom are blamed for the increase.

With Alberta now in its sixth week of a public health emergency, many people are abandoning their healthier eating habits and opting for whatever is handy — precisely the problem, say experts.

Fridge just a few feet away

Some people find comfort in stressful times by eating, says Raylene Reimer-De Bruyn (pictured above), PhD, a UCalgary nutrition researcher and registered dietician. “It’s not surprising given the situation we are in and the fact the fridge may be just a few feet away from your desk.”

Chiropractor Tanya Averill knows this situation all too well. Like other Calgarians who work in businesses not considered essential services by the Alberta government, Averill has been housebound. The northeast clinic where she practices closed in mid-March. Replacing her physically demanding job with far too much time to “snack on carbs and drink more beer” means “I can hardly fit into my clothes.

“This is a worry for me, as I’m usually very health conscious,” she says.

Chiropractor Tanya Averill

Chiropractor Tanya Averill is worried about her new, inactive lifestyle. She’s now trying to get outside every day for a run.

Produce something with your hands

The kitchen activities of mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping and finally — baking — have a way of helping to reduce stress. Says Aviv Fried, BSc (Eng)’08, the owner of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery: "I think people gravitate to bread baking for the inherent challenge and for the satisfaction of making something from start to finish. Producing something with your two hands and then starting all over again — there’s something very satisfying about it. Always has been.”

Tips for eating well

When facing a global pandemic, what’s a few extra pounds? Only you can answer that question. But for those who want to make healthier choices, here are Dr. Reimer-De Bruyn’s tips on eating well during this time of social isolation:

  1. Ask yourself if you are truly hungry. Or do you just need a short break from work? If it’s the latter, go for a short walk or run outside, read five pages of a non-work related book, do 10 minutes of a puzzle or any other activity that gives your mind and body a break.
  2. Choose healthy snacks. If you are indeed hungry, keep healthy snacks nearby rather than processed or sugary and fatty snacks. Fruits such as bananas, oranges and apples and vegetables such as baby carrots, grape tomatoes and sugar snap peas, require little effort to chop and serve. For fruits and vegetables that you can’t peel, wash them well with running water and — presto! — you have a quick and nutritious snack that provides lots of nutrients, fiber and very few calories.
  3. Choose low-calorie drinks. Rather than reaching for something to eat, consider choosing a low- or no-calorie drink instead. Sometimes we confuse hunger with thirst. Before you eat something, have a glass of water first, a cup of tea (herbal, black or green are all good) or a cup of black coffee. If you’re used to loading up your coffee with sugar and cream, use this time at home to slowly wean yourself off of those extra calories.
  4. Keep unhealthy options off the grocery list. Watch what you buy at the store. Avoid the temptation to buy sugary, salty or fatty snacks as well as pay attention to the alcohol on your list. If these guilty pleasures are readily available in your home, you’re likely to consume them. Remember — out of sight, out of mind.
  5.  Make a plan for your meals. Structure regular eating times. Although many of us have embraced Takeout Wednesdays, there are still six other days of the week where you can cook and eat at home. Don’t be afraid to haul out your recipe books or visit the countless online resources that are available for free.

Dr. Raylene Reimer-De Bruyn, PhD, RD, is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Cumming School of Medicine, and member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute