Rebekah Valero-Lee covid-19
Morson Wellbeing Q&A Series
Episode 2: How do I maintain a healthy relationship with food during this time of disruption?
Over the next few weeks, Morson Group health, wellbeing and engagement partner, Heather Deering, will be presenting a series of informative videos in response to common health and wellbeing questions being asked of her by our employees. Our wellbeing series will allow us to support our wider community during, and beyond, this uncertain time.
With all of us experiencing huge disruption to our routines coupled with Easter around the corner we may find that the relationship with our fridges has become unhealthy and unhelpful during this time of upheaval.
As a qualified nutritionist, in this second episode, Heather gives her tips on how to have a healthy relationship with food particularly during times when routines are disrupted. Heather talks food preparation, approaching food with a positive mindset, retaining routine, how to curb emotional eating, nutrition and diet in the media, the benefits of good hydration and vitamin D and letting yourself enjoy Easter guilt free ...
Thank you for the feedback on last week’s inaugural wellbeing series video, and for sending your questions in to me. I’ve had quite a few that have centred around the same subject, so in this video I’ll be talking about how to eat well during this period of time where we’re experiencing so much disruption to our lives.
What does it mean to eat healthily?
I am a nutritionist by trade, and nutrition and relationships with food is something that I feel very passionate about and could harp on for hours about – I won’t – but anyone who has ever spoken with me on this subject will be able to tell you that my philosophy is that food is not something to be feared or conquered, eating is not a problem that needs to be solved, and I think all to often when we speak about nutrition, or eating well, or a healthy diet, what we’re really talking about is weight – weight gain or weight loss – when actually that’s a tiny little part of the picture.
A lot of anxiety seems to be emerging at the moment at the thought of being stuck at home, in close proximity to the fridge and kitchen cupboards, with not a lot else to do except eat, and it’s really sad that this is something that’s causing people additional stress at a time that’s already really difficult. So, if you’re feeling that way, and even if you’re not, hopefully I can provide some thoughts on how you can eat healthily and happily as we navigate this extraordinary time in our lives.
People have always, but now more than ever, used food as a way to connect with their family and loved ones. Food is one of the most fundamental ways that we connect with and show love to the people we care about – whether that’s delivering groceries or meals to somebody who isn’t able to get out and shop for themselves, taking the time to sit down and eat together, or baking with kids. Eating well is one of the cornerstones of wellbeing, but it boils down to so much more than counting calories or macronutrients, or the impact of our diets on how our bodies look, which is unfortunately what most of the conversations around nutrition seem to focus on. Our diet and the way we eat impacts profoundly on both our physical and mental health, which are two things we’re all striving to take extra good care of at the moment.
Getting the basics right
And if you do have aesthetic goals that’s obviously completely fine, but people strive for perfection in their diets when actually the data suggests that the majority of people aren’t even getting the basics right. Only around 20% of UK adults are getting enough fibre, same figure for the number getting their 5 a day servings of fruit and veg, most of us are eating more than double the amount of added sugar we should be.
So, one of my best tips I will constantly give to anybody looking to change their diet is to think about what you can put in, rather than take away. So often when we look at trying to eat more healthily, we’ll just think about what we need to remove – no chocolate, no biscuits, no crisps, no bread. But can you change that mindset? During this time, when we’re spending more time in the home, there's more opportunity to think about and prepare meals:
- Can you be including more fruit and veg?
- Can you be including more wholegrain carbohydrates?
- Can you be trying to increase your fibre intake?
- Or your water intake?
I find that firstly, approaching your eating habits from a positive mindset rather than a negative one sets the tone that healthy eating is something to be enjoyed and relished rather than a chore or a punishment. Secondly, if you’re focusing on what you can be adding in, you will find that those healthier elements do start to replace those less nutrient-dense, perhaps more calorie-heavy foods as a matter of course without you having to actively restrict yourself.
Top tip: Fruit first
One way that you can put this into practice quite consciously is a tip that I give out frequently… if you’re thinking that you really fancy some chocolate or some biscuits or whatever your snack of choice is, give yourself permission to eat that thing, but eat a bowl of fruit first. Because that act of washing, preparing, and eating fruit stretches out some time for that craving to pass, and to fill your tummy with a high volume of healthy food, and then you get all of the lovely nutrients that come with it – it’s a win win. And the thing is, after you’ve done that you may still want the chocolate, and that’s okay. These foods are here for us to enjoy, there is no such thing as a bad food, we just have to give some thought to the proportions in which we eat them.
Keep to a routine and plan
Obviously, many of us are experiencing big changes to our normal routines. You can try and retain a sense of normality by eating according to your normal meal pattern – whatever that looks like, there’s no one right way to eat, it might be three square meals a day or something different, whatever works for you. But retaining that routine, and putting effort into making sure you’re having full, nutritious meals rather than just snacky bits is going to help avoid that situation where you’re constantly grazing on less healthy things, or don’t eat anything for hours and end up having a big, high sugar, high fat, calorie-dense meal because you’re really hungry and your hormones start going crazy telling you to eat. And this might take a bit of planning – obviously at the moment the responsible thing to do is to minimise the number of trips we’re taking to get groceries. That can be quite an adjustment when you’re used to being able to nip into a shop at any point to pick up what you fancy eating at that moment. So think about what meals and snacks you want to eat for the week ahead, make a list of everything you need, and shop accordingly - obviously, if you are self-isolating or shielding please make sure someone else is getting or delivering your food for you. You might do some batch cooking and freeze some meals to eat at a later date to help you get the most out of your fresh and perishable ingredients.
How to curb emotionally driven eating
So we can learn to be a bit more methodical in our approach to cooking and eating, but emotionally-driven eating behaviour is a very common thing – comfort eating, stress eating, even boredom eating are very common behaviours, and probably something that we’re seeing more of at the moment. And emotional eating isn’t something you should feel bad about – these things are common reactions to negative emotions, but you can try to become aware if it is a habit of yours, and in response try to practice eating mindfully. So mindful eating is about being present when you eat, paying attention to the experience and avoiding distractions – internal and external. Some ways to approach mindful eating include giving yourself proper space and time to eat, rather than on the go or while you’re working at your desk; ensuring that you’re focusing on your food rather than scrolling through your phone or watching TV; trying to eat slowly, making sure you’re chewing your food fully and savouring it, and taking time to recognise the different sensations of your meal – engaging all of your senses; and acknowledging and acting on the feelings you experience while you’re eating – for example, eating when you actually feel hungry, and stopping when you start to feel full, rather than because you’ve decided you’re going to eat a certain amount, or because you feel you need to clear your plate. There’s lots of literature available on mindful eating and to be honest, making an effort to eat more mindfully is something that most of us could benefit from – whether emotional eating is a frequent habit or not.
Nutrition and diet in the media: reputable sources
I made a point in last week’s video about making sure you get information from reputable sources, and this goes double, triple, quadruple for this topic. There is no end of complete nonsense about nutrition and diet out there – in magazines, on TV, on social media, from celebrities and “influencers” – I could do an hour’s rant on this topic alone – I wrote my dissertation on it actually – but I’ll keep it to this – please, please, please seek out your nutritional advice from qualified sources. That means bodies like the NHS, the World Health Organisation, the British Dietetic Association, the British Nutrition Foundation, and people like dietitians and registered nutritionists. Unfortunately, nutritionist is not a protected title in the UK which is how you end up with people calling themselves nutritionists when they’ve done a one-day online course or something. Checking out your expert’s qualifications and the professional organisations that they’re registered with will help to keep you safe.
Supplements, nutrients and your immune system
That guides me nicely onto supplementation. Unfortunately, crises such as the one we find ourselves in with coronavirus are often exploited by people who capitalise on the fear of others to sell them something they make out will protect us. I’ve seen a lot of adverts for vitamin supplements or “diet hacks” that will allegedly boost your immune system and protect you from coronavirus. Okay so big myth to bust here – there is no such thing as “boosting” your immune system – no specific food, nutrient, supplement, or anything can prevent you from catching a virus if you are exposed to it. The claims that companies are allowed to make about foods and food-related supplements are very tightly regulated, and the European Food Safety Authority have not authorised any claim for a food or food component in the UK to be labelled as protecting against infection, so if you come across someone claiming the opposite – they either a big liar or woefully misinformed, but either way you should ignore them and definitely not buy whatever they’re selling.
So you can’t boost your immune system, but what you can do is support it by doing all of the things we know are good for our wellbeing – sleeping enough, exercising regularly, and yes, eating a healthy balanced diet that has a variety of different foods in it. The reason why we want to focus on balance and variety in particular is that different foods all contain different micronutrients – our vitamins and minerals – in varying levels, and these all play a part in keeping us healthy. So, we want to make sure we’re getting lots of different foods in a good balance rather than relying on a specific food or foods, because that variety means we’re hitting all of those different many micronutrients that we need.
For most people, it’s possible to get all of the nutrients that you need just from food – with one exception which I will talk about in a moment. There are people who will have vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can be due to health conditions or absorption problems and many other reasons, and who will therefore need to take supplements, and absolutely should if they’ve been advised to by their healthcare professional. But most healthy people can get everything they need from a well-planned, balanced diet, meaning that by and large, supplementation with vitamins and other pills just isn’t necessary.
Now, I mentioned that there is an exception to that rule, and those of you who have done a MOT health check with me will know I’m all about vitamin D. So, unlike all other vitamins and minerals, which we get from our food, most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight exposure. Our skin has a mechanism that synthesises vitamin D from UVB rays that we can use in the body. We do get some vitamin D from food – animal products like meat, fish, and eggs – but we can’t get as much as we need, so topping up with sunlight exposure is critical. In the UK, during the autumn and winter months the sun actually isn’t in the right position in the sky for us to be able to absorb the UVB rays and make vitamin D, so the advice is to take a daily vitamin D supplement, certainly during the winter months if not all year round. However, a lot of us may be going outside less frequently than we would normally, therefore getting less sun exposure, so if you’re not already, you may want to consider taking a supplement. You want to make sure that what it is you’re taking has at least 10 micrograms in it, and that you take it with something containing fat. This is because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin which means it needs to attach to fat molecules in food in order to be absorbed into the body – it doesn’t have to be a super fatty meal, just something that has a small amount of fat, basically just don’t take it on an empty stomach or you won’t see the benefit.
Hydration - water is king
As kind of a final side note to eating well please also make sure you are drinking enough water and staying hydrated. You can monitor your hydration by paying attention to how thirsty you are – ideally you don’t want to get to the stage where you are actually thirsty, paying attention to the colour of your pee – it should be a pale yellow colour, anything darker indicates you’re dehydrated. Other signs of dehydration are things like dry lips and mouth, feeling fatigued, and headaches. Hydration is something to be more mindful of as the weather starts to get warmer and staying hydrated is especially important if you’re poorly or experiencing any of the symptoms associated with coronavirus, like a high temperature. Something that’s really good to be aware of as well is that thirst and hunger signals are processed by the same area of the brain, which means that these can sometimes get confused and we can mistake thirst for hunger, which can lead to cravings for those higher fat, higher sugar snacks. Making sure you’re sipping water regularly throughout the day can help prevent this from happening.
Finally, I want to wish you the happiest of Easters if you’re celebrating, enjoy the bank holiday weekend, and eat your Easter eggs entirely guilt-free!
If you’d like more information about healthy eating, the Group Healthy Eating and Activity Statement has a lot of good info in there, if you don’t have a copy give me a shout and I’ll share it with you.