Food in the time of COVID-19

Our in-house Nutritionist Helen Money provides practical advice on how to stay healthy and gut happy during these disruptive times...

COVID-19 has created change and this can be disruptive to all our behaviours, including eating. Some people will have experienced increased anxiety, this can impact eating. And for some, the supermarket may have run out of your regular foods, this can impact eating. We know that disruption will last a few months, so for wellbeing it is vital that a new norm is created, with routine and planning at the core.

Stick to planned eating times – breakfast, lunch and dinner, you may also want to schedule in a small mid morning and mid afternoon snack. Without set meal times one is likely to graze all through the day. Foods chosen for grazing tend to veer towards sweeter foods such as biscuits and other quick fixes such as crisps, both low in health supporting vitamins and minerals. It could also lead to a higher overall calorie intake or a diet too high in carbohydrate and low in protein.

Know in advance what you are going to eat; you may need to make some changes depending on what is available in the supermarkets but still have a plan. This is particularly important for lunch. The majority of the country is now working from home. Taking a break mid day, having to then decide what to cook from the contents of the fridge or cupboard, then cook it, can seem like a huge effort. Everyone has been there – 5 minutes staring into the fridge to then decide on a ‘keep you going’ cup of coffee and biscuit. Lunch needs to have been pre-made or super quick.

Here are four lunch solutions that may work for you

  • Homemade soup – batch cook soup that includes both protein and vegetables. Either freeze in individual portions or keep in the fridge and use over the next couple of days. bbcgoodfood.com has some great soup recipes.
  • Salads – make a salad up the evening before and store in the fridge, in an airtight container. Large jars are perfect for this – add a layer of carbohydrate such as wholemeal pasta, rice, couscous, quinoa, beans or roasted sweet potato cubes, add a layer of protein, fill to the top with a variety of salad vegetables leaving just a little room for a teaspoon of seeds and a little dressing. When ready to eat, give the jar a shake and delve in (saving on washing up!).
  • Cook extra the night before –  think ahead, when cooking dinner make extra for lunch the next day.
  • Eggs – eggs are the ultimate fast food. Poach, scramble, boil or make into an omelette, just remember to serve with vegetables or salad. Frozen spinach is a super quick way to add veg.

Why is this important? The disruption caused by COVID-19 is not here for the short-term. It’s fine for a week or two such as on holiday, to eat and drink what we want but three months of a diet high in sugar, saturated fat and salt, low in vitamins, mineral, antioxidants, phytonutrients and fibre is long enough to cause metabolic changes and increase risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Supporting the immune system in these COVID-19 times is also important. A healthy immune system needs fruit and vegetables. Fresh, frozen and tinned (with no added sugar) are all fine. Target a minimum of 5 a day – that’s one with breakfast, two with lunch and two with dinner. Or one every time you eat – breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. For those that don’t like veg, you may find them more palatable in a well blended soup. Also important are the minerals iron, selenium and zinc. Good sources include low fat red meat, shellfish, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.

Another essential nutrient for the immune system is vitamin D. We are just moving into the months of the year that we can synthesise vitamin D from the sun in the UK. However it is likely that you will be outside less in the coming months, so it is important to keep taking a 10µg vitamin D supplement (unless prescribed a higher dosage by your GP).

The relationship between gut bacteria and the immune system has been a hot area of scientific research in recent years. In particular the involvement of gut bacteria in inflammatory pathways. There is less published research on gut bacteria and viruses. It is known that some viruses attach to molecules from gut bacteria which make viral infection possible. However as yet there has been no peer reviewed papers published on COVID-19 and gut bacteria. But what we do know is that ‘good’ gut bacteria is important to long term wellbeing and unhealthy diets do not create a conducive environment for the colonisation of good gut bacteria. We can add good bacteria to our gut through foods such as live yogurt, kefir and fermented foods such as pickles and miso soup. But good bacteria thrives off fibre, especially in foods such as leeks, onions and garlic. And with social distancing there is no reason to hold back on the garlic (unless you have IBS of course)!

For some people COVID-19 has given them the gift of time. Why not use this opportunity to try new foods and experiment with new recipes. Share photos with us, we would love to see your creations!