Nutrition during the COVID-19 emergency
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our habits, bringing a different perspective to our daily lives and forcing us to quickly adapt our lifestyles.
However, we can use this period of self-isolation at home to improve our eating habits and limit dietary excesses and bad eating behaviours that can have a negative impact on our health.
Until a few weeks ago, our fast-paced way of life would often leave us with little time to look after our diet and that of our loved ones. Now, however, we have the opportunity to:
- devote more time to cooking our meals
- devote time to our breakfast and, if we live with other people, share this important meal of the day with them
- increase our consumption of foods such as vegetables and pulses, which, despite being important in our diet, we may not cook often due to lack of time.
In addition, as we are less busy and are spending most of our time at home, we can consume the majority of nutrients earlier on in the day, which can help reduce weight gain and improve our sleep. Having our lunch at home means that we can make choices that are more in line with national and international dietary recommendations and avoid eating on the run, maybe a sandwich. A diet which includes a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, adequate amounts of proteins and essential fatty acids provides all the nutrients needed for good health.
A healthy diet starts in early childhood and, in this respect, breast milk is essential for a childâ€™s growth and development. Therefore, during our â€śhome confinementâ€ť, special attention should be given to our childrenâ€™s diet, as the long periods of time spent indoors could lead to the development of erratic eating patterns. At the same time, we should encourage elderly people to choose healthy foods and make small adjustments that can help improve their health (e.g. limiting alcohol consumption, reducing salt intake).
How to eat better and stay healthy
- Include more plant foods in your diet. More fruit and vegetables and more pulses at every meal of the day. Now you have more time to cook these foods and enjoy them on their own, as an accompaniment (for example, to the main course), or as a snack (carrots, fennels or cherry tomatoes). This would contribute to reducing your calorie intake and improving your diet.
- Choose wholegrain varieties of cereals, as they help keep your bowels healthy and fill you up, which means that you are less likely to eat too much.
- Remember that drinking water is essential to stay healthy; in addition, water contains no calories, so it will not make you put on weight. Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water every day, even if you are not thirsty. Aim to replace sugary drinks with water or freshly-squeezed and extracted fruit juices.
- You may be cooking more these days, as you find it rewarding and relaxing. Take this opportunity to use less fat and reduce your salt intake. If you want to experiment with new recipes, try replacing energy-dense ingredients (like cream or chocolate) with lighter ones (like ricotta or fruit). Also, try and involve the people around you to share these activities with them; if they are children, remember to take all necessary safety precautions.
- Pay more attention to the variety of foods that you bring to your table day after day, alternating and combining different food groups in different ways: this would help improve the quality of your diet and make your eating experience more pleasant, and can also become an opportunity to introduce young people to new foods.
- In between the 3 main meals of the day, children should have a couple of light snacks, such as a yoghurt, a fruit, a slice of bread and jam, one or two cookies or, sometimes, a small slice of cake. Adults donâ€™t need snacks, especially if their meals are filling. Alternatively, they can have a yoghurt or a fruit so as not to spoil their appetite for the next meal.
- Follow good hygiene standards when handling, cooking and storing food.
What should be limited?
- Watch out for fatty food, foods and drinks that are high in sugar and excess carbohydrates (e.g. pizza, bread, pasta). Limiting your consumption of these high-calorie foods and drinks may prove particularly difficult when you are spending long periods of time at home. Watch out also for salty snacks, as they make you eat more. Remember that salt, sugar and alcohol are not necessary and may be harmful to your health; sugar and alcohol are also high in calories. Reduce their amount until you can remove them altogether from your diet.
- Avoid excess consumption of any type of food and behaviours that may result in an unbalanced diet. So, keep an eye on portions! Since you are doing less physical activity than you used to, you should reduce your intake of calories. Portions are standards that help you control your eating, so you should be familiar with them. For example: a portion of pasta is 80 g (uncooked), which corresponds to about 50 penne or fusilli; a portion of mozzarella is 100 g; a portion of bread is 50 g, the equivalent of a small roll. To sum up, you should aim to and reduce calories and portions and take physical exercise also at home.
- Make sure you donâ€™t overfill your fridge and pantry/cupboards. Excess food in your home can lead to either food waste or overconsumption to avoid throwing it away. In addition, when you buy large amounts of food, you are making it unavailable to those who have fewer opportunities to do their shopping. Be careful also with canned food: it may be convenient and practical, but is often high in salt and may contain additives.
- Make sure you donâ€™t turn your kitchen worktops into a table full of sweet or savoury snacks to constantly nibble on. The current situation can allow you to re-balance your meals prioritizing the two main meals of the day: breakfast and lunch. A lighter dinner can make your metabolism work more efficiently.
- Remember: there are no food supplements that can replace a balanced diet, nor are there vitamin supplements that can protect us from COVID-19, or other diseases.
The document â€śGuidelines for a healthy diet. 2018 editionâ€ť published by the CREA Food and Nutrition Research Centre in November 2019, and the in-depth feature by Angela Spinelli (ISS), published on EpiCentro on 9 January 2020
The CREA website
Pages of the Ministry of Health website dedicated to Healthy Diet
Healthy Diet section on the WHO website
Eat well section on the website of the UK National Health Service (NHS)