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Harvard Health Blog
Eating during COVID-19: Improve your mood and lower stress
- By Uma Naidoo, MD, Contributor; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
My patients these days are expressing more angst and fear, and looking to find ways to cope with the pandemic and the “new normal.” With children and entire families home together all day, and work and school schedules disrupted, loss of a daily routine can increase anxiety and disrupt healthy eating. One of the drivers for this increase in anxiety seems to be uncertainty, which can throw plans for healthy eating out the window.
Meal planning for a family, a challenge on its own, can be more so now with seclusion at home, more people to feed with different tastes, and more food stores with limited groceries and shopping times. There’s also the uncertainly of bare shelves, with normal staples of a nutritious diet unavailable, at least temporarily. It’s tempting to buy whatever is available, even if it’s not something that’s part of your normal diet.
It’s hard to cope with being quarantined and not reach for your favorite salty, crunchy snack because of boredom or feeling on edge. A few pretzels or chips are okay, but many people may not be able to step away from eating the entire bag once it’s open. Also, if you’re already feeling blue, the quick fix of cookies or cake will ultimately make you feel worse. Processed foods and shelf-stable items like baked goods contain a lot of simple carbohydrates that create a yo-yo effect on our blood sugar, which can drive anxiety and worsen mood.
How then can we mindfully make good food choices?
- Make a schedule or a daily meal plan. A schedule is more predictable for you and for everyone in your household.
- Consider apps to stay connected around a meal. Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime with family and friends. Share recipes or even cook virtually together.
- Plan for groceries. Try to buy fewer processed, high-salt or high-sugar snacks.
- Load up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins.
- Save money. Skip the high-sugar soda and juices; instead flavor water with edible citrus or berries.
- Plan and enjoy an occasional comfort food for a weekly treat — pick a day and enjoy whatever you want, just not all your favorites on the same day!
- Manage your environment. If candy is simply not in the cupboard, then you can’t eat it.
You might be surprised to learn that certain nutrients in foods have been shown to reduce anxiety or spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine — and we all want to feel as good as we can during these times of uncertainty. People are feeling a lot of stress right now, and the unfortunate reality is that stress worsens feelings of low mood or angst, and it also suppresses our immune systems. Therefore, targeting immune-boosting foods will have a dual effect — you may feel less anxious and boost your immunity.
I’d suggest incorporating these foods as a way to include healthier options into your nutrition during this unusual time of stress and uncertainty. We all have to eat, so attending to our nutrition is something we can all control, and then reap the benefits of an improved mood.
Reduce anxiety and boost immunity by choosing:
- Citrus fruit and red bell peppers (both rich in vitamin C, which in some studies has been shown to support your immune system)
- Spices: ginger, garlic, turmeric, and capsaicin (from chili peppers) can be easily added to soups, stews, stir-frys, or salad dressings.
- Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, clams, mussels, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks. You may recognize zinc as an ingredient is the cold remedy Zicam, as zinc has some virus-fighting effects.
- Magnesium-rich foods may help you to feel calmer, and help support immunity. Stress can deplete our magnesium levels too. Examples are legumes, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains.
- Fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids. A study on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety.
- Eat probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, miso, and kefir.
- Add some antioxidants to your anti-anxiety diet, which can support your immune system.
The bottom line:
Staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging for everyone, and the increased anxiety (and boredom) can cause people to abandon their healthy eating intentions and snack on whatever is around. But with a little thought and planning, you can continue to make good food choices and maybe even boost your mood and immunity.
For more information, listen to our podcasts and see our Coronavirus Resource Center.
About the Author
Uma Naidoo, MD, Contributor; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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The Harvard Medical School 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating
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