Feeling food anxiety? Expert advice on eating your way through a pandemic

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An expert in nutrition says Canadians may be going through a period of "food anxiety" in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But healthy food options are still possible while practising social distancing and self-isolation, even if it means having to rely on frozen and canned choices in an effort to make grocery store trips less frequent.

"People are clearly afraid to go (to grocery stores) and trying to limit their time there is probably a good idea," said Debora Sloan, a registered dietitian in Ottawa. "And I think there's a little bit of anxiety right now with questions like: 'Am I going to have enough food? What food should I have around the house? Do I need to ration my portions?

"I think we can push this into a positive thought and use this time to do a little batch cooking and meal prep, have fun with recipes, make things that you can freeze and store for later, and experiment a bit more with canned goods and frozen fruits and vegetables."

While fresh produce and meat options have been low in stock at some grocery stores across the country, Sloan said there are still plenty of alternatives to be found on the shelves and in the refrigerated section.

Things like tofu, Greek yogurt, egg whites and cottage cheese are perishable protein items that "last longer than we think," whereas lentils and canned beans, chickpeas and tuna pack a protein punch with a longer shelf life. Having a plant-based protein powder on hand to add to things like smoothies and pancakes can help too.

Frozen fruits and vegetables also provide plenty of nutrition, said Sloan, adding that frozen options can be even better than fresh produce that has been sitting on a delivery truck after its been picked.

Jonathan Conti, a dietitian who works at a Toronto long-term care home, agrees.

"The benefit of frozen vegetables is that they are harvested at peak freshness, blanched and flash frozen to preserve their nutritional value," Conti said in an email to The Canadian Press. "I tend to pick the frozen vegetables that would take a longer time to prepare when fresh. For example, frozen butternut squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach are nutrient-rich options that take minimal time to cook (from frozen)."

Conti, a registered dietitian, recommends people take a "food inventory" before they go stock up at the grocery store.

Not only will knowing what's already in the cupboard help with meal planning, it can also help alleviate some shopping anxiety and limit time spent in a store.

"If you have an idea of what you want to eat for the next two weeks, it will make it easier to shop for any missing ingredients," Conti said. "Healthy doesn't have to mean fancy and simple meals can be just as nutritious.

"If you have low-sodium broth, canned mixed beans, veggies like carrots, peas, canned diced tomatoes, you can make a hearty soup that can last for several meals."

Sloan, who is also a crossfit coach and personal trainer, has owned and operated her own nutrition practice -- Debora Sloan Healthy Solutions -- for seven years.

While purchasing healthy food is important during a pandemic, Sloan said trying to maintain other healthy habits -- what she calls "mindful eating" -- is becoming even more significant with people confined to their homes during social distancing and self-isolation.

"Being home all the time increases access to food in the house and that can be problematic for people who are snackers or emotional eaters," Sloan said in a phone interview. "People are stressed out because there's a lot going on right now and they might be doing more snacking than they would if they were at work or at school or going about their regular business.

"So it's more important in the next while to just stay in tune: Why am I eating? Am I actually hungry? Is this going to satisfy my hunger? Am I eating out of stress? Am I eating because I'm bored?"

Sloan also cautioned that now isn't the best time to overhaul eating habits completely. Sticking to a more familiar plan could be a more ideal course of action.

"People have a lot going on with kids at home and stress and they aren't going to be making huge behaviour changes right now," she said. "I think it's just important to stay calm and mindful and remember that it's OK to just maintain.

"It's also OK to eat crap sometimes and not let that derail you. I think a lot of people have that attitude and it's hard to get out of that, so just try not to be so hard on yourself."

This report was first published March 22, 2020.