With supermarket shelves depleted of some basic food items, restaurants closed and the prospect of several more weeks of lockdown, it might feel like more of a challenge than usual to eat a balanced diet.
However, health experts stress that maintaining a healthy diet is one of the most important things that we can do amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Social distancing measures have forced most of us to drastically change our lifestyles overnight, so keeping to healthy routines and behaviours with food is not only good for your physical health, but it can also help you to find a small slice of ‘normal’ amongst the uncertainty.
10 tips for a healthy diet during the lockdown
Read on for ten top tips for eating and feeling well during the lockdown.
1. Look for nutritious alternatives
If your supermarket is regularly running low on your usual cupboard staples, nutritionist James Collier, co-founder of Huel (huel.com), says that you should try exploring other foods that could offer similar health benefits.
“Do some research and change up your grocery list with alternative food options to ensure you’re not missing out on your essential vitamins and minerals,” he suggests.
For instance, he says lentils, beans or couscous are good options if you don’t have pasta and rice – “The key advice here is nutrition should still come first, but you may have to switch up some of your routinely used ingredients.”
2. Don’t ditch the fresh veg
Fresh fruits and vegetables may have taken a back seat for you in favour of frozen chips and pizzas, and while you shouldn’t punish yourself for this (food can be an important source of comfort right now), it’s vital that you’re also nourishing your body with the vitamins it needs.
“Fruit and vegetables provide loads of essential nutrients and there are ways to extend their shelf life and make them more convenient,” says Collier.
He suggests prioritising soups and sauces which can be made straight away and then frozen; ”You can also make a concentrated stock which you can then freeze in ice cube trays use later.”
While Liza Strydom, senior specialist dietitian at The Princess Grace Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK), adds: “Carrots, are an excellent source of vitamin C and antioxidants, and spinach is good for iron, vitamins C, A, B and magnesium levels. Make sure to eat tomatoes for their lycopene and vitamin A and C content.”
3. Add in a vitamin D supplement
According to the British Dietetic Association, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet, and there’s no specific food or supplement that will prevent you from catching COVID-19.
However, as we’re spending more time inside than ever before, and many of us don’t have access to an outdoor space, a daily supplement of vitamin D can keep our levels topped up.
“Current guidelines for vitamin D supplementation state that all adults and children over the age of one should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms, while babies under one year should be given a daily supplement of 8.5-10 micrograms, unless they have more than 500mls of fortified formula milk,” says Strydom.
4. Choose foods with mood-boosting properties
Feeling low and anxious? Making a few simple changes to your lockdown diet could make a big difference to your mental health.
“Certain foods have ingredients with mood-boosting properties,” says Strydom. “For instance, the antioxidants in dark chocolate also help to fight off stress and anxiety,” she notes, although she warns that this should be consumed in moderation.
“In addition, unrefined carbohydrates can help to increase serotonin levels, a chemical messenger that’s believed to act as a mood stabiliser, while oily fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines are full of omega-3 acids, which may play a role in easing depression.”
5. Eat your essential fats
Speaking of fish, Amy Wells, lead dietician at CircleDNA says we should be prioritising eating them right now, as they’re packed with essential fats.
“During the lockdown, aim to eat at least one serving of salmon or sardines (canned, fresh or frozen will do) every other day, plus a tablespoon or two of walnuts, flaxseed, chia seed or even hemp seeds,” she suggests.
“These food are full of omega-3 which are the essential fats known for their protective functions, and they play a huge role in resolving inflammation.”
If you’re a plant-based eater, she adds that you can get omega-3 from certain nuts and seeds (think walnuts and flaxseeds), however, these are in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a less actively utilised form with lower anti-inflammatory properties.
6. Always an assortment
“Avoidance of one or more essential nutrients can happen unintentionally, especially when your food choices are limited to what you have in your kitchen,” notes Wells.
Vital, protective nutrients like vitamin B6, B12, copper, selenium and zinc, and less vital prebiotics are found in an array of foods.
“In addition to piling on plants, don’t forget about animal-based foods too. For instance, vitamin B6 can be found in bananas and chicken, but vitamin B12 is only sourced [naturally] from red meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy.”
With that in mind, those on a vegan diet should take a daily B12 supplement.
7. Stay hydrated
If you’re working from home, it’s easy to get distracted and forget to take regular kitchen breaks.
“Make sure you are well hydrated at all times,” says Mike Wakeman, a clinical pharmacist, nutritionist and adviser to Neubria)
“This is important, especially in the vulnerable elderly, who often drink fewer fluids than they need. Poor hydration puts extra stress on the body at a time when all of its immune resources need to be at their optimal.”
8. Keep an eye on your sugar intake
You may be finding it difficult to resist the urge of a sugary mid-morning snack to get you through the day.
“A high sugar diet can lead to a weakened immune system though, as sugar fuels the ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut,” warns nutritional therapist Camilla Gray, speaking on behalf of OptiBac Priobiotics.
“So instead of reaching for a sugary biscuit or sweets, try balancing your blood sugar levels. To do this, I suggest eating a balance of protein, healthy fats and fibre at each meal. If you do eat sugary foods, then try and make more healthy choices, such as dark chocolate with a high cocoa percentage as opposed to high sugar milk chocolate for example.”
9. Avoid processed foods where possible
We all have days when we eat super healthily, and days when our good intentions fall by the wayside, but if your ‘bad’ days outnumber your ‘good’, then Gray warns that your immune function could be impacted.
“Keeping up a structured healthy diet may be challenging, especially at the moment, but now is the time to pause and reflect on the food you are using to fuel your body,” she says.
“Try to embrace the extra time at home and spend more time preparing and cooking your meals, it’s a nice way to pass the time and your gut will thank you too.”
10. Try to limit alcohol
With all the days blurring into one, it’s tempting to crack open a bottle of wine to differentiate between the working day and the evening. However, it’s still important to keep your alcohol consumption within government guidelines – even if you don’t have to set an early alarm for a long commute to work in the morning.
“Try to minimise the amount of alcohol you drink, especially during the week, which will also help you stick to a routine,” says Collier.
In addition, he suggests you keep an eye on the number of caffeinated drinks you’re having and try switching to decaf options during the afternoon, as this can help you sleep and focus better.