There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we are living our lives. Many people are home from school or work, stores and restaurants are closed, and enjoying a day out with friends is a distant memory. As more people are stuck home, our eating habits are changing. But are they changing for the better?
If we compare current nutritional patterns to those prior to the pandemic we find a mixed report. According to Dr. Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Americans were not consuming healthy meals before the pandemic. These poor diets and high BMIs (body mass indexes) of many Americans are major risk factors in the onset of several diseases. Now, however, as more people are eating at home more frequently, it appears that Americans may be leaning towards healthier lifestyles, improving their overall health. According to an article published in the Journal of Nutrition by several researchers, Americans typically acquire 21% of their total calories from restaurants. The researchers also found that most of the foods from restaurants were of below par nutritional standards. Since Americans are no longer eating out as much, they are consuming fewer calories from restaurants, and may therefore be consuming fewer calories overall.
However, it is also important to note that during this quarantine, the sales of flour, sugar, and alcohol have all increased. These ingredients are commonly used in the preparation of snacking foods, so scientists suspect that many Americans are stress cooking and stress eating in addition to frequent snacking. Stress eating and frequent snacking may lead to overeating, which disrupts one’s caloric balance.
Although it is unclear exactly how current Americans’ diets compare to their pre-pandemic diets, it is clear that there is still much improvement to be made. Now that most people are eating at home and are more in control of their own food, it may be the perfect time to make these improvements. Ideally, people should consume a specific number of calories each day to maintain their current weight. This number can be calculated by using the MyPlate Plan calculator. MyPlate is a nutrition education tool created by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The purpose of this tool was to improve the nutrition and well being of Americans by promoting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The calculator is simple and easy to use. It asks for information like age, sex, height, and physical activity status. For women, there is a slot that adjusts the calculator to account for pregnancy or breastfeeding. After you enter your information, the calculator will give you the specific number of daily calories that you should consume to maintain your current body weight.
However, this number is not easily understood by many; most people don’t count calories as they cook their meals, and foods like fruits and vegetables do not have a nutrition label, making it challenging to count calories in these foods without consulting a reference table. Luckily, MyPlate has a feature that converts the number of calories into servings of each major food group: vegetables, fruits, dairy, protein, and grains. It tells you how many cups or ounces of each of these food groups you should consume daily to maintain a caloric balance and a healthy and balanced diet.
The MyPlate tool helps practice portion control, helping to reduce overeating by setting specific amounts for each food. Additionally, since MyPlate has all the requirements for one day, there is less leeway to sneak in unhealthy foods.
Another challenge to healthy eating is that many experts are advising against trips to crowded places like supermarkets, making it difficult for people to go out and buy the ingredients they need to cook. This too, however, may actually help with meal planning. Experts are suggesting that in order to minimize trips to supermarkets, shoppers should use weekly or daily meal plans so they know in advance what ingredients to purchase for food preparation. Additionally, keeping a supply of nutrient-dense foods that stay good for a longer time may be wise as well. Foods that will stay fresh for a long time include canned fruits and vegetables, soups, frozen meat, and eggs.
Although many people are ditching traveling to supermarkets in favor of grocery delivery apps such as Instacart, it is possible to stay safe in supermarkets. Going to the supermarket at times when it is least crowded is one way to do this, and it is also smart to use a disinfectant before touching the grocery cart handle. Although there has not been evidence of transmission from food packaging, organizations such as UNICEF are still emphasizing the importance of good food hygiene. All unnecessary packaging should be thrown out or wiped clean with a disinfectant. Unpackaged foods should be thoroughly cleaned under running water. And as always, remember to wash your hands for at least twenty seconds with soap and water.
A lot of our priorities are changing, but a healthy diet should always be one of our highest priorities. A balanced diet can help maintain and improve our physical and mental health, which are both especially important as we attempt to deal with this new reality.