When looking at the title of this article, it might appear to be a paradox. Being confined to your house for 3 weeks and still eating healthy… is that even possible?

In this article, we will explore this thought and unpack it with relevant, practical information and advice.

The COVID-19 era

Since the COVID-19, aka coronavirus, outbreak landed on African soil and was declared a disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa, there have been contingency plans to help ‘flatten the curve’ and curb the spread of the virus. This initially led to restrictions on gatherings and an emphasis on hygiene but was soon followed with an announcement that we would be going into a nationwide lockdown for 21 days.

These measures caused a lot of panic and anxiety, which is completely understandable, but remember:

  • We are treading on unchartered territory.
  • There is no previous case law or standard operating procedure we can follow.
  • We are literally making history now.

So, whenever you feel overwhelmed; take a deep breath, relax for an extra second and remind yourself to take it one day at a time.

Emotional eating

With the worry affecting moods and atmospheres all around us and being confined to our homes it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify that this will lead to mindless and emotional eating.

Just when you might have forgotten about it or switched off for a millisecond, you see news reports or newly confirmed cases get announced, creating an underlying uncertainty, fear and tangible distress in the air.

A stressful situation — such as the last month of COVID-19 overload — triggers a cascade of stress hormones that lead to many physiological changes (also known as the “fight-or-flight” response).

The response begins in the brain; when we are confronted with danger, the eyes or ears send information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the cues and when it perceives danger, a distress signal is sent to the hypothalamus.

Upon receiving this signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending messages through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by secreting the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream.

Keep in mind, all these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t consciously aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centres have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people can jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.

In the context of COVID-19, this means that you realise that everyone is panic buying toilet paper (visual cue of danger – amygdala – distress signal sent to hypothalamus – autonomic nerves activate sympathetic nervous system – secretes epinephrine) and you also panic buy the remaining toilet paper before you even realise what is happening.

With the amygdala (area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing) ‘taking the lead’ in decisions in stressful times, it makes sense why we may be more prone to emotional eating.

We know that we don’t always eat just to satisfy physical hunger. Food can also be our comfort, stress relief or a reward. During in isolation eating can also stem from loneliness, boredom or perhaps just because it is readily available.

Remember that emotional hunger cannot be satisfied with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered it remain and will creep up again later.

A good example is that of the root versus the plant – the root is the feeling or emotion and the plant is the eating, we first need to fix the root which will ultimately positively affect the plant.

Sometimes you need to go through the process of feeling negative emotions, although that is easier said than done. Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be terrifying. It might feel like Pandora’s box, once you open the door of emotions you won’t be able to shut it, but the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful feelings diminish relatively quickly and lose their power over us.

Tips if you are eating out of:

  • Loneliness or depression: Skype, video call or phone someone who always makes you feel better, play with your dog or cat.
  • Anxiety: Expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favourite song, squeezing a stress ball or doing a home workout.
  • Boredom: Read a good book, watch a comedy show, sit in your garden and enjoy the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (painting, mosaic, listening to or playing music, scrapbooking, etc.)

Practical advice:

Firstly, there is no need to stockpile or buy more food than you normally would. Although you should seek to keep shopping trips to a minimum, if you are not ill and are practicing social distancing, you can still visit the shops to buy normal supplies. The government has no plans to close supermarkets and any shortages now are being caused by panic buying.

Here are a few tips to help you plan your shop and how to make best use of the food that you buy:

  • Use up your fresh ingredients first. You don’t want any food to go to waste, so use up perishable ingredients before foods with a longer shelf life.
  • Know what keeps longest. Fresh foods with relatively long shelf life include root vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and onions.
  • Carefully wash, rinse and drain salad leaves and fresh herbs, dry them and keep in an airtight container in the fridge. By doing this your salads and fresh herbs will last for several more days than if just stored in the fridge uncovered.
  • It might seem obvious but make sure you aren’t storing things in your fridge that don’t need to be in there. For example, fresh tomatoes, unpeeled onions, unpeeled potatoes and whole butternut squashes don’t need to be stored refrigerated. Removing these items from your fridge and storing them in a cool dark place will free up fridge space for more perishable items.
  • If you are stuck at home, take the opportunity to tidy and declutter your kitchen cupboards to free up space for ambient food products such as tinned foods, grains and cereals, dried fruit etc.  This is a great opportunity to get rid of those unused, unwanted items that end up “living” in your valuable storage space. Remember to recycle as many of the items you are discarding as possible.

There are many nutrients required for the normal functioning of the immune system and therefore we would encourage maintaining a healthy, balanced diet to provide a variety of nutrients to support immune function (include copper, folate, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C and D). We would not recommend any food over another but instead encourage eating a variety of foods to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Drinking enough water is also important to stay healthy, so aim for a minimum of 6 to 8 glasses per day.

In addition to a healthy balanced diet, a general healthy lifestyle is also important to support your immune system. This means not smoking, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and trying to minimize stress.

With all of this in mind, we wish you a safe, healthy and speedy lockdown.