If your main coping mechanisms during the pandemic are snacking and marathoning Netflix, you're far from alone.
"When we're more stressed, we tend to crave foods that aren't so healthy for us," said Amanda Gowin, a licensed dietitian who teaches in Westminster College's health and exercise science department. "And we eat when we're bored."
On Thursday, Gowin lectured on "Food, Mood and Movement: Keeping Healthy During COVID-19."
"I want to give you all what I think are the most important highlights for staying healthy during these crazy times," she said.
She made it clear there's nothing wrong with enjoying comfort foods, taking an easy day or having a beer on a Friday night.
"I truly believe all foods can fit (a healthy lifestyle), but it's about what we're doing a majority of the time," she said. "I know that if I eat healthier and exercise, I'm going to be a better mother, more patient with my students, and have more energy to share with people and get things done."
Additionally, she said, maintaining a balanced diet and getting regular exercise can boost your mood and immune system.
"I love thinking about how food can be medicine and medicine is our food," Gowin said. "I don't think any of this can replace medication but it definitely helps."
Step one of eating better is eating consistently. Gowin recommended eating within one hour of waking up every day and sticking to scheduled meals after that, plus a snack or two.
"If you go longer periods of time without eating something, it impacts how you feel," she said. "I try to make my breakfast as healthy as I can because there's so many temptations throughout the day."
Skipping meals can make you crave less-nutritious foods, and trying to tide yourself over with a couple cookies or another sugary snack can cause a blood sugar spike and crash.
"That leaves us feeling more tired and irritable," she said. "It's a vicious cycle."
Next, work on adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, Gowin said. She admitted nutrition is an ever-evolving field of study, and no one diet or "super-food" has proven a magic bullet for everyone. But research does indicate eating a rainbow of plant matter is good for overall health.
"Most of the research goes back to plants," she said. "I'm not advocating for a vegetarian diet, but we definitely need to be eating more plants."
Only about 5 percent of America's population is eating the recommended minimum of five servings of plant matter per day, she said. And that's a pity because the nutrients found in plants can help maintain gut health, reduce inflammation and keep your immune system healthy.
"We have millions of cells in our body, and they all need adequate nutrition to work properly," Gowin said.
Different fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients — from vitamin A to zinc and everything in between. What she recommends is trying to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, plus some nuts, seeds and whole grains.
"I like vegetables, but sometimes I don't feel like eating them," she said. "So I'll get in a routine and say I'm going to eat two colors today. When was the last time I ate something that was purple?"
Ideally, at every meal, half your plate would be full of fruits and vegetables; eating lean protein at every meal and staying hydrated are important too, she said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests eating at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day, with a serving being about one cup.
But simply resolving to eat more vegetables isn't enough for most — Gowin suggested setting a goal and laying out concrete steps to achieve it. Here are a few of her tips for eating for health, even at a time when many people are shopping less often.
Add a cup of oatmeal to each pound of ground meat, which will stretch the meat and add fiber.
Don't shy away from frozen fruits and vegetables. They're just as nutritious, and they last longer.
Eat a piece of fruit as a snack every day at 10 a.m.
Focus more on adding nutritious foods to your diet than giving up foods you enjoy.
Consider a veggie smoothie to pack in a lot of fruits and vegetables all at once. Her favorite is cup kale, half a banana, cup frozen berries and 10 ounces of dairy or non-dairy milk.
Find ways to incorporate extra fruits and vegetables into food you already enjoy eating: Add sliced bananas to your peanut-butter sandwich or beans to your wrap.
Resist stocking your pantry and freezer with less-nutritious foods; save them for when you order and eat out.
"You don't have to eat a healthy diet for a year to see changes — just one to two weeks can make a difference," she said.
Daily exercise is perhaps even more important to mental and physical health than diet, Gowin said.
"Moving your body has the greatest impact on mood and energy levels," she added. "The more we move, the less we have depressive and anxiety symptoms. Even 15 minutes of exercise increases the chemicals in our brain that make us feel good. And it helps with sleep."
For mood management, Gowin suggested aiming for a minimum of 15 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise, or 30 minutes of more gentle exercise, every day. Anything from walking to yoga to weight training can work — she even has one friend who does "walking karaoke," singing along to a song while he strolls.
"I have a student I've been in touch with off and on since he graduated in 2012," Gowin said. "He recently reached out to me wanting motivation. I told him to skip dieting and focus on getting exercise right. We should be thinking about exercise like we do brushing our teeth."
She challenged him to work out 30 minutes every day for 100 days in a row. He's now on day 578, she said.
"Make sure you have backup plans for days when you don't feel good, the gym's closed or it's raining," she added. "You have to think through your barriers and find a way to make it happen."
If you're not feeling up to a run on a given day, it's OK to take it easy.
She noted area gyms are reopening, and the Stinson Creek Trail is always open. There are also plenty of fitness-centric YouTube channels and free apps, for those unable or disinclined to venture out.
As you contemplate lifestyle changes, whether dietary or exercise-focused, Gowin recommended choosing two things you're already doing well to improve on, along with areas in which you know you need work. For example, perhaps you already take a 20-minute walk daily — maybe you could increase that to a 40-minute walk.
"When you start with what you're already doing, that's going to make it a lot easier to keep going," she said.