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Eating Healthy During a Pandemic: Why It Matters

Recently, we sat down with Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne to discuss healthy eating habits during what has been, arguably, one of the most stressful times for many of us. Below, Dr. Lowe-Payne answers questions related to the emotional impact of stress on eating habits and why it’s more important now than ever before to establish and maintain healthy eating habits.

What is your best piece of advice for people stuck at home as they practice social distancing?

As we shelter in place, many people are seeing it as a sense of loss. The loss that they are feeling – loss of their freedom for example – can be similar to some of the grieving processes we actually see.

If you are feeling that sense of loss, it’s ok to own your feelings.

These feelings are actually quite normal for us to have. And as we own these feelings, we can also make strategies to help deal with them better.

What are some strategies to help you cope with your feelings?

As you start to look at the sense of loss that you have, try to re-frame from your thinking. Instead of looking at it as a sense of loss, try to think of this time as an excuse to slow down. Many of us often say that we want to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Well, now we have an opportunity to do that. So use this as time to do some self-reflection or spend time bonding with family. And really pick projects or things that you want to do so it doesn’t seem like you’re depriving yourself and you’re losing your freedom but that you’re actually gaining something in the end.

Talk to us about stress and cortisol.

Cortisol is actually one of those hormones that is released during the stress process – and as it relates to cravings, it can increase your cravings but in an indirect way. When you are stressed your body is going to release a host of hormones – cortisol being one of them.

In the short term, cortisol is actually quite helpful and essential in that it helps you get through a stressful process.

However, over a period of time cortisol can do things that are detrimental to you such as lowering your immune system or even increasing thirst. And it’s that thirst that can trick our minds into thinking that we’re hungry. That thirst can cause increased cravings or drive us to eat when we’re not really hungry.

In addition to foods, what are some other ways you can lower your level of cortisol?

Try to get regular physical activity. When you do, it helps to release calming hormones like dopamine that counterbalance stress hormones and helps to lower your cortisol level. Exercise doesn’t have to be at the gym, it can be something as simple as walking, gardening or even dancing to your favorite tune.

In addition, mindfulness techniques such as mindful breathing, meditation and yoga are also very effective as well.


What about alcohol and how can it contribute to over eating?

Well alcohol can be tricky because alcohol is a sedative so if somebody is feeling stressed on a particular day and they have a drink or two it can be very effective in helping to calm that person down. If you do it every once in a while and it’s not something that you do on a regular basis, it’s not particularly dangerous. Where we start to see the danger as it relates to alcohol is when we see someone using it as their main coping mechanism to lower their stress levels.

Be careful when you’re drinking alcohol, try not to drink it more than what the average recommended dose is, and make sure while drinking that you stay well hydrated.

When you drink alcohol not only can it increase your thirst which can add to those cravings we discussed earlier, but it doesn’t have a lot of nutritional benefit. It adds a lot of extra calories in which can make a person gain weight not to mention the fact that drinking alcohol can also affect a persons ability to get deep sleep which can then trigger our hunger hormone and cause us to eat when we aren’t actually hungry. And can increase things like alcoholism and alcohol abuse which we want to avoid as well.

Are there foods you can eat to help boost your immune system and help to lower your cortisol levels?

Being in a state of chronic stress can actually cause you to have a lower immune system.

To help counteract this, we must maintain a diet that is as healthy as possible in addition to performing stress management techniques.

Foods that are known to help lower stress as well as boost your immune system are things that are high in vitamins and minerals. Examples are whole grains, fruit, vegetables, herbal teas such as chamomile or green tea and even a little chocolate (just try to stick with dark chocolate).

What are some foods that we should have on hand if we do get sick?

Definitely make sure you’re focused on healthy eating. When we are stressed, your body is naturally going to want to eat carbohydrates.

If you are eating carbs, make sure you focus on carbs that are high in fiber, filled with great vitamins, and very complex like beans and lentils, root vegetables with skin, whole grains which are minimally processed, berries, quinoa , and cous cous. Some of these can even be healthy sources of protein.

Also your fruits and vegetables will help to boost your immune system and getting ones that are fresh or flash frozen is also helpful as well to make sure you are maintaining as healthy of a protocol as you can.

Does upping your water intake help stave off food cravings?

Yes it absolutely does!

Any other tips for healthy eating when being stuck at home?

  1. Stick to a schedule to avoid binging or excess snacking.
  2. Eat together when possible to increase socialization and enhance mood.
  3. Couple healthy eating with physical activity to help lower stress, stay active and maintain cardiovascular fitness.
  4. Make lists for shopping to help avoid impulse buying of comfort foods and limit trips to the store to decrease exposure.
  5. Try to stay away from processed food and go more with fresh, flash-frozen or canned veggies.

Watch Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne’s full interview on ABC11.

About Tiffany Lowe-Payne, DO

Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne is board certified in medical bariatrics and specializes in stress management. She is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, which means she takes a whole person approach to helping her patients lose weight. Weight management options include seeing her one-on-one or participating in a small group setting – all for the cost of a primary care co-pay. To learn more, call (919) 350-1000.