Nutrition experts weigh in on how food can comfort and protect you in these uncertain times.

You’ve seen the memes on social media and the comments from your friends about eating all of their quarantine snacks in one day. Maintaining a healthy diet in these trying times is challenging, to say the least. But it is a goal that everyone sheltering in place should strive for. Food is more than breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Many experts agree that it’s medicine that your body desperately needs in times of peril.

Color remains the key, says Amy Gannon, program director for Marshall University’s Department of Dietetics. Colorful plates with a variety of fruits and vegetables ramp up the content of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber in your body—all critical to staying healthy. Try to always include a protein, a vegetable, and a starch with every meal, says Karen Wheeler, clinical nutrition manager for the Charleston Area Medical Center. Keep fruit and nuts on hand for healthy snacks when cravings hit, and as much water—fruit-infused is fine—as possible.

And it might be surprising advice coming from registered dietitians, but Gannon says when you have the need for comfort food, indulge in comfort food. “Sometimes you just need something that you associate with happier
times,” she says. “You can eat comfort food, but make smarter choices by cutting salt, adding fresh herbs and spices, and reducing butter in recipes or switching to healthier alternatives like olive oil.” Wheeler agrees and cautions West Virginians to balance their eating with physical activity. She suggests taking advantage of virtual live exercise classes that are now hosted plentifully online by shuttered gyms and fitness centers to motivate their members from afar.

Both women encourage “cupboard cooking,” which requires analyzing what you have on hand and putting a meal together creatively. This limits the need for trips to the grocery store and provides an opportunity to clean out your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. When you do go to the store, head out with a list in hand—that minimizes the time spent inside and limits your exposure to the virus. Include canned lean meats, dried beans, frozen vegetables, and grains. Combinations of these can make delicious meals. Wheeler also suggests adding omega-3 fatty acids to your cart like fish, flax seeds, and chia seeds.

It’s also important when you do make a grocery store run to handle your food safely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released food safety tips for the COVID-19 pandemic. Those include washing hands and surfaces often, separating foods, cooking foods to the proper temperatures, and refrigerating foods promptly. Read more about the CDC guidance here.

West Virginians have higher rates of illness and death related to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension than many other areas
in the country, Gannon says. These are all also preexisting conditions that can lead to worse outcomes if infected with COVID-19. Eating healthy foods and maintaining physical activity are most important to these populations, she adds. And if you do get sick, don’t discount the power of chicken soup. Hot, steamy broth provides a number of benefits.

Ultimately, everyone’s focus right now is avoiding infection, keeping their families safe, and getting through this experience with your sanity intact, Wheeler says. “If you can do all those things and eat healthy too, that’s great. If you can’t, don’t feel guilty.”

posted on April 29, 2020

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Holly Leleux-Thubron
Written by Holly Leleux-Thubron
Holly is the managing editor for all magazines created by New South Media. She has more than 15 years of professional writing experience and when she isn’t working on the next issue, she’s finding adventure with her husband, Stephen, and teenage daughters: Isabel and Eve.