By Susan Bowerman
While we shelter in place and practice social distancing, many of us may feel wary of the one errand we’ve generally taken for granted– the grocery run.
Now, going to the grocery store takes even more planning as the visits are less frequent and options are more limited. Because of these restrictions, it’s easy to make selections that are not the healthiest or to be tempted by high-calorie comfort foods – which often contain too much fat, salt and sugar.
Now more than ever, our health should be a top priority. This means making choices to nurture our bodies even more so than we did before COVID-19 impacted our lives. When we make poor choices – such as selecting foods that are high in calories but short on important nutrients – we can be overfed and yet undernourished. Starches and sugars may fill our bellies, but we may be lacking many important nutrients that support overall health, including the health of the immune system.
Nutrients We Need More Of
Every few years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases data that reveals the state of the American diet. Reports have previously highlighted that many of us are eating plenty, yet lacking certain nutrients from our meals. In particular, we are losing out on what can be found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Here are essential nutrients we should pay more attention to:
- Fiber – Best known for helping with regularity, high fiber foods are filling and relatively low in calories, making them one of the best allies when it comes to weight management. Certain fibers can also encourage the growth of ‘good’ bacteria in your digestive tract. These beneficial bacteria help support immunity because they serve as an initial line of defense, by crowding out potentially harmful bacteria that might enter the digestive tract. You can get more fiber by including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet. Use fruits and veggies as snacks, add them to smoothies, sandwiches, salads, soups and stews, and replace refined grains with whole grains.
- Magnesium – While it’s not a mineral we typically think about, magnesium contributes to hundreds of bodily functions. Magnesium supports the health of your immune and nervous systems, supports muscle function, and assists your cells in producing energy. Magnesium is abundant in plant foods like leafy greens, nuts, beans and whole grains, so try snacking on nuts, or toss some beans into a leafy green salad.
- Vitamin D – Most people associate calcium with healthy bones, but your bones need Vitamin D too, since it helps your body absorb calcium from your diet. Vitamin D is also needed for proper muscle function and supports the activity of the immune system. Good dietary sources of vitamin D include eggs and fortified dairy products; a daily walk outside can help too, since your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
- Potassium – This mineral supports the function of nerves and muscles and helps regulate blood pressure. Potassium also supports chemical reactions in the body that generate energy from food. One reason many people don’t get enough potassium is because they don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables – the most abundant sources of this important mineral.
Many women also don’t get enough calcium or iron:
- Calcium – Calcium is critically important for bone health. Adults need at least 1,000 mg of calcium each day, or the amount found in three glasses of milk. However, many women don’t eat enough dairy products, either because they simply choose to avoid them, are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, or because they are sensitive to lactose. However, calcium can also be obtained from leafy green vegetables and some fortified foods.
- Iron – One of iron’s key functions is to support the transport of oxygen to cells and tissues. Women who are premenopausal lose iron routinely with their monthly cycle, which is why it is so important to ensure they have adequate intake. Meat is an excellent source of iron, but those on a plant-based diet can obtain iron from beans and fortified cereals.
Eating for Wellness
The great news is that most of these nutrients can be found in foods that are easy to buy in bulk and maintain a long shelf life until your next essential grocery run.
Dry goods like oatmeal, lentils and whole grain pastas and cereals can be great sources of fiber, iron and magnesium, and some cereals are also fortified with Vitamin D. The most important feature is to ensure that you’re buying “whole grain” to get the full benefit, so read labels carefully.
Produce that lasts the longest includes apples, citrus, onions, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and carrots. And keep in mind that frozen fruits and veggies pack the same nutritional punch as their fresh counterparts, so stock up on them when you find them. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of fiber and potassium and a single carrot provides a days’ worth of beta-carotene, which helps protect the health of cells, including cells in the immune system. The body also converts beta-carotene to vitamin A which supports the health of the skin, including the specialized immune cells that reside there.
Finally, fermented foods are also great options that provide beneficial probiotics (the ‘good bacteria’) to the digestive system. Some fermented foods, like tempeh or Greek yogurt, are also excellent sources of plant-based protein (and yogurt is a great source of calcium) and both foods have relatively long shelf lives. Protein supports immune function in a number of ways – among them, the body uses protein to manufacture antibodies, and protein supports the health of the skin and the cells lining the digestive and respiratory tracts.
How Supplementation Can Help
A well-balanced diet should provide the essential nutrients to optimize your body’s healthy functions. However, the reality is that even with a balanced diet, no one eats perfectly every day – particularly during these uncertain times when our usual foods may not be as readily available. That said, this is when the right supplementation can really help. For example, if you can’t get the recommended 25 grams of fiber from fruits, veggies and whole grains, or enough calcium from your usual foods, you can work in fiber or calcium supplements. A daily multi-vitamin or the use of fortified foods – like cereals or meal replacement shakes or bars – can be consumed to help supply the vitamins and minerals your body needs to perform at its best.
During this time of uncertainty and social distancing, use it to your advantage to take care of yourself and your body. Plan out your grocery list and stock your freezer, refrigerator and cupboards with healthy staples. Focus on the important nutrients you may need to increase in your diet and choose foods accordingly. It’s a great time to start getting creative in the kitchen–you may even be surprised at what tasty meals you can put together with what’s already in your pantry!
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND, Sr. is Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition.