Developing Healthy Eating Practices While Stuck in Quarantine

How to maintain a healthy diet while spending more time at home

Reviewed by: Krystle Zuniga, PhD, RD, LD
Written by: Ashley Lawrence

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There’s been a buzz about the “quarantine 15,” the weight gain some may be experiencing due to stress, boredom, lack of exercise, emotional eating, and working within feet of a fully stocked kitchen. Having to self-quarantine and practice social distancing has created disruptions to our daily routines that can impact our healthy eating habits and tax our immune systems.

Whether you’re looking to shed some extra weight or simply trying to make some changes to your day-to-day health, you’ve likely noticed that what you eat throughout the day has a major impact on your body’s performance. We understand there may be a lot on your plate and making changes to your diet can seem overwhelming, which is why UT Health Austin dietitian Krystle Zuniga, PhD, RD, LD, is here to offer tips on how to maintain a healthy diet as you continue to navigate this new normal.

Choose food options that can provide you with sustained energy

Good sources of complex carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and good sources of proteins and healthy fats, such as beans, eggs, and nuts, are more filling and can provide your body with sustainable energy. Limit packaged and processed foods that are high in added sugar, sodium, or trans fats as these often leave your body feeling less satisfied and cause you to feel rundown, irritable, and even hungrier.

“Every single cell in the body is made up of the nutrients that we take in, which impacts the body’s function, and in order for our bodies to perform well, we need to provide our bodies with the right fuel and building blocks,” explains Dr. Zuniga. “While foods or drinks high in simple sugars or caffeine can provide our bodies with quick energy, they also make us sluggish and we tend to crash after. By focusing on foods that provide a more sustained form of energy, we can avoid these quick rises and falls that often exacerbate fatigue.”

Treat snacking as an isolated event

You may want to ask yourself if you are snacking out of boredom or because you’re actually hungry, and make sure snacking isn’t replacing your daily meals. It’s okay to snack between your usual mealtimes to give yourself some added energy or to curb hunger. However, relying on grazing all day will interfere with your ability to listen to your natural hunger and fullness cues if your body is used to eating all the time. To prevent mindless eating, try to limit snacks to a designated area. Instead of snacking at your desk area while you’re on the phone, begin and end your snack at the kitchen table.

“Your body will tell you what it wants,” says Dr. Zuniga, “and it’s important to pay attention to the ‘why,’ making sure you’re not snacking because of something else that’s going on. If you snack a lot between 10 a.m. and noon, you may need to have a bigger breakfast. If there’s a trigger associated with your snacking, such as reaching for something every time you sit on the sofa, you may need to limit the amount of time you spend on the sofa or replace it with a new habit.”

Snacks should consist of a good mixture of protein and some complex carbohydrates that have fiber, such as trail mix consisting of nuts and dried fruit without the added sugar, whole grain pretzels or dry cereal, low fat cheese or sliced deli meat and fruit, tortilla chips and salsa, low fat yogurt and granola, vegetables and hummus, roasted chickpeas, and more. Avoid settling for candy, crackers, cookies, or chips, and try to keep your pantry stocked with healthier food choices.

“If you have kids, try not to micromanage food right now,” suggests Dr. Zuniga. “As a parent, you already have enough to deal with between working, maintaining your household, and trying to teach your children. Most kids are pretty good about paying attention to their natural hunger cues, so the best thing you can do is just have some healthier options available to them.”

Take this opportunity to explore other food options

If you find yourself in a situation, like so many of us did a few weeks ago, where fresh produce, milk, and eggs are sparse, seek out healthy alternatives. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often cheaper and because they’re picked at peak ripeness and processed onsite, they actually retain more nutrients when they’re frozen than when they’re fresh. Canned fruits and vegetables are another option, just be sure to look for canned vegetables that are low in sodium and fruits that are canned in their own juices. There are also several healthy baking substitutions, such as avocado for butter, Greek yogurt for cream, almond flour for regular flour, applesauce for sugar, and flax seeds for eggs.

“With everything that’s going on, you may have to be flexible when it comes to securing nutritious foods. If you’re having a hard time finding cow’s milk, you can always opt for almond milk, soy milk, or oat milk. Now’s a great time to try to incorporate new foods into your diet that can be just as nutritious,” encourages Dr. Zuniga.

Eat out and drink alcohol in moderation

With communities being urged to support local restaurants and businesses, delivery and to-go options have become increasingly popular. While ordering out can make life less stressful and drinking alcohol can help you relax, both should be practiced in moderation. Remember, you can always seek out healthier food items or substitutions when ordering from your favorite restaurants and try to limit yourself to 1-2 servings of alcohol.

“It’s okay to treat yourself from time to time, especially with everything that’s going on right now,” acknowledges Dr. Zuniga. “When ordering food, don’t eat directly out of the to-go container. Instead, present it as a meal, which also helps with measuring portion sizes. Also, if you’re drinking later in the evening, alcohol can interfere with your inhibitions, oftentimes causing us to overindulge, as well as your sleep quality, which carries into the next day. If we aren’t well rested, we tend to not make the best food choices, seeking out foods that are higher in sugar and fat to give us quick energy that can just as quickly fizzle out.”

Find time to be active

Healthier eating habits make exercising more enjoyable, and exercising gives you more energy, helps you sleep better, reduces your stress levels, and helps support your immune system. Exercising doesn’t have to be hard, it doesn’t need to be high intensity, and you don’t have to be dripping sweat for it to be beneficial to your body and overall health. Find a form of exercise that you like, whether it be taking the dog for a daily walk, using resistance bands while you work from home, or having spontaneous dance parties with the entire family in the living room. Challenge yourself to get moving for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

Dr. Zuniga says, “Now that many of us are working from home, we are reducing our non-exercise activity thermogenesis, also called NEAT, which is the energy we use on activities outside of eating, sleeping, and exercising. These are the calories we were burning in day-to-day activities, such as walking to and from work or to our next meeting. We are losing all of those extra steps, which is why it’s important to make sure we’re mindful of taking small breaks to get up and be active.”

Check out these ways to stay active while at home.

Depending on your specific healthcare needs, a dietitian may be a part of your healthcare journey at UT Health Austin. You can make an appointment with UT Health Austin by calling 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or by visiting online here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.