We invited specialist dietician Rachel Anne Hobbs to talk to us about eating and staying well while living in isolation. Rachel addressed some nutrition basics for us and answered some of the questions she is commonly asked.
Q1. How should I be eating?
It might be that your eating habits feel different at the moment but that’s completely normal and important to know that it’s OK to be eating differently.
However, it’s still important that we try and follow some basic nutrition principles, for both our physical and mental health.
The first thing Rachel recommends is to get into some sort of routine with meals and snacks throughout the day.
Start thinking about how many meals a day work for you – that can be between 2 or 3, up to 4 or 5 if you prefer eating small meals throughout the day.
You can be flexible with these guidelines but try to follow a healthy eating plan and make sure your plate at each meal contains a third to a half of vegetables or salad. Try and get a mixture of as much colour as you can at the moment.
Make a quarter of your plate a source of protein. You might have to change your protein source a bit if you’re finding it difficult to get chicken breasts or eggs (eggs seem to be difficult to get in some places at the moment).
You could try new recipes that include some more plant-based sources of protein, such as dried lentils, dried chickpeas or dried beans.
Fill the rest of your plate with wholegrains or tubers – tubers are things like potatoes, sweet potatoes.
If you have extra energy needs, add a healthy fat source, such as avocado, a drizzle of olive oil, or nuts and seeds.
This is basically how meals should look, spread evenly throughout the day but don’t worry too much if they aren’t exactly like that, for example if one meal doesn’t have protein in it, that’s OK.
If you’re struggling to get fresh vegetables, it’s fine to be using frozen or tinned vegetables and fruit. If you are using tinned fruit, try to get ones that aren’t in syrup and opt for fruit in natural juices instead.
Try not to go longer than three to five hours between meals or snacks to maintain an adequate source of energy. If you’re going for long periods without eating it can cause blood sugar to drop, which causes symptoms like irritability, and can increase feelings of low mood and anxiety – which we want to try and avoid at this time.
Rachel recommends having a variety of snacks that you find nourishing and really enjoy. Have up to three snacks a day between meals and on these occasions check in with your hunger. Use a hunger scale between one and ten. One being that you’re starving hungry and ten being that you’re so full you feel sick. If you feel like you’re four or below that’s when you know that you’re physically hungry and would benefit from having something to eat.
It can be difficult at the moment to tell when we’re actually physically hungry and when we’re just craving something because we’re feeling a bit anxious or bored, so using the hunger scale could be a useful tool.
We want to try and include foods that will benefit our health. Some of them might be harder to get hold of at the moment but if possible include oily fish twice a week in your diet. Oily fish is a great source of omega-3, which is an essential fatty acid and important for our heart health, concentration, and insulin sensitivity. It can be found in salmon, mackerel, and kippers (tinned or fresh).
Another nutrient we need to make sure that we’re consuming enough of is iron. If we become low in iron we can start to feel very tired and can get quite pale. Iron is found in foods like lean beef. So, if you can, try and have that at least once a week. There is some iron in plant-based foods, such as spinach, raisins and some seeds, but it is a slightly different type of iron that doesn’t get absorbed very well.
So if you struggle to get iron in or you struggle to get oily fish, or you just don’t like it, that’s when you should consider taking a supplement. The supplement Rachel recommends for omega-3 is called Carlson. The supplement she recommends for iron is called Active Iron – this combines iron and Vitamin B12, which is really important if you’re following a vegetarian, vegan or plant based diet, or if you’ve just drastically reduced your poultry, meat and fish intake in the last couple of weeks because you couldn’t find it in the supermarket.
You should also try and include a source of calcium every day. That could be a dairy milk or a plant-based milk that is fortified with added calcium, or a pot of yoghurt.
For general wellbeing and the health of our gut we should make sure we’re getting a mixture of different types of fruit and vegetables. The general guidelines are to try and eat about 20 different types of plants a week to support our digestive health.
Because it’s likely that we’re going outside less at the moment we need to make sure we’re getting adequate levels of Vitamin D. If we become deficient in Vitamin D we might become fatigued. So supplementing with 2000 IU per day is important.
We also need to make sure that we’re staying hydrated. It can be easy while we’re at home not to think about our fluid intake so Rachel recommends using your urine to check whether you’re hydrated enough. It doesn’t have to be absolutely clear but if it’s bright orange, you know you’re dehydrated, which can impact mood and energy levels.
For most people drinking between 2 and 3 litres of water a day is enough to stay hydrated optimally.
Finally, Rachel recommends planning meals. Look at the ingredients you’ve got and plan meals with the family or whoever you’re sharing your meals with during isolation. Make sure the meals are balanced in terms of protein, whole grains and vegetables, and that they’re meals that you enjoy, and that perhaps you can make in bulk. This ensures that mealtimes are not causing you too much food-related stress if you’re using ingredients you haven’t used for a while or you’re not really sure what to do with them.
If you plan meals in advance you know exactly what you’re having, you know it’s going to suit everyone, so hopefully there won’t be any arguments.
Q2. Can I boost my immune system?
“Can I boost my immune system through diet?” is a really common question. The short answer is that there is no food or supplement that will effectively boost our immune systems.
Our immune system relies on us eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, so Rachel’s main guidance on ensuring that your immune system is working normally and optimally, is to not ban any foods from your diet.
So, don’t go low-carb or low-fat, or keto. Instead, we want to aim to keep as much variety as possible in our diet to ensure we’re not deficient in any vitamins or minerals. That means lots of fruit and vegetables, plenty of whole grains, a variety of different protein sources, and sources of essential fatty acids, such as omega-3.
Q3. How do I deal with bad body image days?
The first thing Rachel would like us to acknowledge is that it’s normal when we are in a situation that we can’t control, or feel is out of our control, to put any anxiety and stress that we’re feeling (and may not even realise we’re feeling) onto something more familiar to us, for example our bodies.
So, if we’re feeling a little different or thinking differently about our bodies than we have done previously, that’s normal and totally OK. And if we’re feeling negative towards our bodies we just want to try and shift that mindset.
The reality is that our bodies may change a little during this time. It might be that we’re using food for comfort, or we might be stressed and losing weight or not training as much and losing muscle. But that’s OK because it doesn’t impact on your self worth or who you are as a person.
If you are feeling this way, there are a few coping mechanisms that we can use to move from a place of fear – when we become negative about our body image – to a place of calm, so we can think more rationally and start to accept our bodies for what they are in this moment.
The first thing Rachel suggests to do when these uncomfortable thoughts arise is to take a pause, breath deeply and check in with our senses. A great activity is to name five things that you can see, four things that you can touch, three things that you can hear, two things that you can smell and one thing that you can taste. Really tune in to your senses and to how your body is feeling.
The next thing to remember is that you’re not alone in feeling this way and that you’re not feeling anything that other people aren’t feeling.
If you are struggling with body image, Rachel recommends that you get rid of your scales. During this time your bodyweight might change and if it goes in a direction that you don’t want it to this might lead to dysfunctional thoughts and not make you feel in a happy or healthy place.
Next, learn to counter argue with yourself whenever a negative thought arises.
If we’re living with other people we need to set compassionate boundaries with them when it comes to talking about body image or food. If someone comments that your eating habits have changed and it makes you feel low about your body image, let the person know how it’s making you feel and ask them not to comment on your body, your weight or your eating.
Remember that everyone is probably struggling a little so be compassionate.
Finally, keep a journal. Every morning and evening make a note of one or two things that you’re proud of yourself for and that you’re grateful that your body has permitted you to do that day.
Q4. I feel out of control around food, how do I stop this?
Another question Rachel gets asked is how to regain some control around food at the moment. I’m definitely eating more than usual at the moment, how can I stop this?
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re all in a situation we haven’t been in before and if we’re using food to cope with our anxiety or stress or feelings it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s OK because it’s supporting us to cope with those uncomfortable emotions. Or if we’re not quite ready to face those emotions it’s protecting us from them until we are ready.
But this becomes a problem if we become very distressed or we start to feel very guilty about eating more than usual, or if we’re feeling very uncontrolled around food and eating a large amount compared to the amount we have done previously. If we consider it a binge episode there are certain coping strategies we can start to implement to see what works best for us.
The first one is pausing and using the acronym HALT. Ask yourself: Am I hungry? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I tired?
Those things can all be triggers for commencing a binge-eating episode.
So, if you’re hungry, eat a nourishing meal – something that will both fill you up physically and meet your likes and wants.
If you’re angry, meditate, write a journal, or take a walk. If you’re lonely, call a friend or Facetime with someone. If you’re tired, take a rest, have a nap or read or book.
When we’re physically vulnerable – hungry, angry, lonely, tired – we’re not able to deal with those uncomfortable emotions as well.
The next coping strategy that might work for you is to repeat a mantra or a coping statement. It’s great to come up with some of these for yourself but some popular ones include:
“I am safe.”
“This won’t last.”
“Discomfort is temporary.”
The idea is to repeat the mantra until you start to feel more secure, calm and in control.
The third strategy is to sit and acknowledge your feelings. This could be verbally or written in a journal. It’s very powerful to tune into your emotions and acknowledge how you feel in the moment and accept that it’s OK to feel this way.
The fourth strategy is to immediately do something that is going to relax you. That could be colouring, breath work, engaging in a guided meditation, or something that you know will take the panic down and take the urge to binge eat away.
Distraction – come up with a list of five things that will distract you for at least ten minutes, for example calling a friend, drawing, colouring, going for a walk, gardening, or just something that will take you out of that place where your thoughts are telling you to engage in a dysfunctional activity like binge eating.
Don’t forget the strategy of tuning into your senses – five things that you can see, four things that you can touch, three things that you can hear, two things that you can smell and one thing that you can taste.
Finally, engaging with your support network. Write a list of all the people you can contact if you are struggling. Have a few different people on this list as some people might not always have the emotional capacity to support you.
Beat Eating Disorders Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Samaritans Helpline: 116 123
Q5. Is it still possible to lose body fat whilst in isolation?
Is it possible to lose body fat and weight whilst in isolation? Yes, it’s absolutely possible to lose body fat during this change in lifestyle but Rachel asks that you consider whether this is the right time for you to be focussing on weight loss.
Some people are using this time to their advantage to lose fat as they have more time to dedicate to their nutrition and exercise but it’s important to think about whether this is the right time for you as sometimes when we try to lose weight it can impact our mood slightly, or if you’re trying to juggle work and the kids at home this might not be the right time.
However, it is absolutely possible and the same principles will apply as at any time that you’re trying to lose fat – basically achieving a calorie deficit. The calories you intake need to be less than the calories you expend.
We expend calories through our BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) – this is the energy we use to do things like keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing – and our NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) – the energy we expend by walking around. We also burn energy through planned exercise, so any home circuits or online gym activities you might be taking part in at the moment.
Energy in is from the food and drink that we consume. In order to lose weight we need to ensure that the energy we get from food and drink is less than the energy we are expending through exercise, walking and our basal metabolic rate.
It’s likely at this time that you might be a bit more sedentary if you are staying at home more than usual, however we are able to walk so make the most of getting outside and going for a walk, but obviously steering clear of people not in your household.
If you decide that fat loss is your goal, Rachel recommends that you put together a routine for yourself, including things like when you’re going to do your walk, when you’re going to do your exercise, and think about meal planning and whether you want to use a food diary, or decrease your portion sizes, or use a phone app to track intake.
You need to ensure you’re creating a calorie deficit and by having a routine you can see from week to week whether you need to make more small changes to get you closer to your goal without negatively impacting your life.
Easy things you can do include using a smaller plate to decrease portion sizes, focus on lower calorie, nutrient dense food options like plenty of vegetables and fruit to fill you up and then think about decreasing the intake of high calorie or high energy foods, like chocolate, cakes, crisps, butters and oils – anything that has a lot of calories for a small amount of food.
There are no ‘bad’ foods but if weight loss is your goal you want to focus on cutting down on these kinds of foods.
Weight loss is best if it is done slowly and sustainably so don’t attempt fad diets or quick weight loss because they can have negative implications on our mood. One thing we really want to focus on is ensuring that our mental health is as optimal as possible during this time.
So that means don’t cut out any food groups and if you find that a fat loss routine negatively impacts on your mood just increase calories back up again for a few days to see if that makes a difference. You can always decrease them again.
Q6. Should I change my eating if I do a workout?
Do I need to change my nutrition if I’m training? If you’re performing very low intensity exercise such as walking or yoga (both amazing for physical and mental health) you’re probably not expending a huge amount of calories so just stick to your usual routine.
If you’re doing any strength based workouts or going for a run you will be using up stored energy so it’s a good idea to ensure that you have adequate stores of energy before starting that activity so your blood glucose doesn’t drop too low.
After a training session, to ensure that you’re recovering, immediately start replenishment and start refueling the body, especially if you plan to train again within the next 24 hours.
Regardless of whether it is a snack or a meal, ensure that you have something to eat within 1.5-2 hours of your session. Before your workout this should be a medium-release carbohydrate and you can add in a protein source. For example, if you’re training after breakfast a good breakfast could be overnight oats with Greek yoghurt and a banana.
And then post workout have something fast release, so it immediately starts to bring up your blood glucose. This doesn’t have to be done straight after a workout, for example if you have an hour or two until your next meal you can wait until then and just make sure that meal has enough food in it to help the body recover from the exercise done. For example, a jacket potato with tuna, chicken fajitas, or a tofu stir fry with rice noodles would be good post workout meals.
If you’re not planning on eating your next meal for four or five hours then replenishing with a snack is a good idea. For example whey protein and a banana, a pot of yoghurt with some fruit, a bagel with eggs, a protein bar, or a small bowl of cereal. But try and avoid things like granola and other high fat foods straight after a workout because fat slows down digestive transit and we want something that will replenish the body quickly after a workout.
So, around our workout times we want to be opting for low fibre, low fat foods to help refuel and repair.
Q7. What can I eat to stop feeling tired all the time?
I’m tired all the time, can nutrition help prevent my fatigue? Nutrition can support feelings of energy but fatigue and the causes of it are often quite multi-faceted. However there are things we can do with our nutrition to help support our energy levels.
The first thing that you should check is that you’re eating enough food. If you’re on a low calorie diet you will have less energy and if that’s having a negative impact on your mood just slowly increase the food content of your diet.
Make sure you’re not cutting out any food groups, particularly carbohydrates as these are really important to maintain our energy levels. Try and have them spaced evenly in your meals throughout the day.
Make sure you’re not going for long periods without eating. So, no longer than three – five hours and that ensures that our blood glucose levels remain stable.
It’s common to stockpile calories, or have the majority in the evening, so instead try and spread your calories evenly throughout the day so that you have a drip-feed of energy going into the body.
If you’re not eating a lot of meat or you’re a vegetarian or vegan by choice, there’s a possibility that you might be deficient in iron and vitamin B12. So supplement with Active Iron.
Rachel advises testing for a deficiency before taking a supplement, using a kit you can buy online. GPs don’t offer to test for this anymore.
To conclude, Rachel summarised her top ten tips on nutrition and wellbeing at the moment for us:
Top Ten Tips
- Create a routine – with your meals and your day.
- Plan your meals – look at what ingredients you have and plan.
- Community – use your networks for support.
- Get the nutrition basics right – include fruit and veg at most meals, include whole grains and a source of protein when you can. Drink enough water.
- Prevent deficiencies – ensure a varied diet and don’t cut out food groups.
- Engage with your support network if you’re struggling – use family, friends or a professional support network.
- Accept that at this time your body may change – and that’s OK.
- Be grateful for your health and the way your body is working.
- Don’t be overly restrictive with your intake even if weight loss is your goal.
- Compassion, compassion, compassion – be gentle with yourself and be gentle with those around you.