Why keeping yourself healthy is more important than ever

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Nutrition is a major component of our general well-being that has changed immensely in the span of this quarantine. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The COVID-19 pandemic has upturned everyone’s daily routines. Our situation has made us all more health-conscious, with the country following social distancing guidelines and being advised to cultivate healthier habits. As we transition from enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) on May 15, it's worth examining our diets and nutrition, a major component of our health that has changed immensely in a short span of time: what are these changes in our diet, and are they sustainable in the long run?

Expert observations from the ECQ

Now that there are restrictions on groceries and wet markets, food vendors have taken to online selling and mobile markets.

Dr. Yasmin Zuñiga, an endocrinologist and medical nutrition specialist at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute and Marikina Doctors Hospital, says that this may have helped those who used to frequent fast food, buffet, and dessert restaurants: “During the early part of the ECQ, [these] places were mostly closed. Alcohol is still restricted. These possibly helped some people improve their blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight.”

ECQ restrictions have undoubtedly affected our access to produce, dairy and meat. On the other hand, fast food businesses are harnessing online delivery platforms, making it easier to satisfy one’s food cravings: Zuñiga adds, “Since the shift to GCQ and widening of delivery options, cravings for these foods have been awakened.” While the occasional treat may be harmless to some, this may do more harm than good to those susceptible to high blood pressure and diabetes.

Anna Teresa Orillo, a registered nutritionist-dietitian and Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at the University of the Philippines Diliman, believes that stress-eating during this time may be a means for some to cope with the general instability of our situation.

She explains, “Some have formed unusual eating habits, which I hope will get better once we resume our new normal. Some eat too much or less than usual, some have become picky-eaters, while others have resorted to crash diets, over-exercising or, on the flipside, binge-eating, to compensate for their lack of sense of balance.”

Unfortunately, the usual fast food fare is high in sodium, sugar, and fat; to maintain a healthy diet, these should only be consumed once in a while.

It's worth examining our diets and nutrition, a major component of our health that has changed immensely in a short span of time: what are these changes in our diet, and are they sustainable in the long run?


Cultivating new skills at home

Not all diet and nutrition changes have been necessarily bad. For one, people with no prior cooking or gardening experience are starting to cultivate new skills.

"The quarantine has allowed people to learn or rediscover their cooking skills, and enabled families to spend more time together and enjoy family meals," says Zuñiga, noting the benefits of home-cooked meals. "Home-cooked food, compared to fast food and restaurant-type meals, are often lower in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium.”

Orillo agrees with the benefits of increased home-cooking and urban gardening: “You get to choose the ingredients that you put into the pot, including the quality and the variety… We are also more conscious of meal times, especially now that we get to eat with family. We’ve been consuming more fruits and vegetables. Some have even started their own vegetable gardens for a more sustainable food supply.”

With the closure of groceries and wet markets, people are starting to look towards urban gardening; from fruits and vegetables to pocket herb gardens, urban gardening is a way to keep fresh produce accessible with limited space. There are even government initiatives to help get interested gardeners started, such as Quezon City Small Business and Cooperatives Development Promotions Office’s provision and delivery of starter kits.

However, many also rely on packaged snacks, which are cheaper but less nutritious. “Those groups with limited access to food and basic services will further increase their risk for malnutrition, infection or communicable diseases.

"These population groups need to be supported by local governments and concerned citizens,” emphasizes Zuñiga.

These include lower-income families, people living alone, the elderly, those who have lost their job or been separated by their families, and those with highly specialized nutrition needs, such as allergies or the requirement of tube feeding.

Tips for sustainable, healthy ECQ nutrition

There is no one-size-fits-all diet out there for these times; in fact, Orillo advises to steer clear of any fad diets: “Some of these diets claim to help you lose more than 1 to 2 pounds per week without exercise. This is too quick and may pose harm to your health. It also entails commitment to a specific regimen, which may not be feasible right now.”

For now, the following are general tips to help promote healthy nutrition during our community quarantine:

Plan your meals and mind your portions. Consume only what you need. The National Nutrition Council’s Pinggang Pinoy is a recommended reference to check for appropriate portions (e.g. an adult meal should consist of ⅓ portion rice and alternatives such as bread and root crops, another ⅓ portion vegetables, and the remaining ⅓ portion for fish and alternatives and fruit.)

Be mindful when you shop for food. If possible, maintain a food supply good for two weeks at a time. Prioritize fresh products over processed food, and opt for less salt, sugar and fat. Make sure to add fiber to your diet, as well. Pay attention to product expiry dates and replace items when needed.

Practice creativity in food preparation. Herbs and spices like pepper, ginger, lemongrass, bayleaf, and chilies can make healthy dishes more interesting and appetizing. Avoid salty snacks, pastries, candies, and sugary drinks, as these may cause spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar. Instead, try freshly squeezed fruit juices, cut-up fruits, and root crops, boiled or deep-fried, as snacks.

Have a set meal time. Daily routines such as meal times can help maintain normal body weight, curb unnecessary cravings, and improve your mood. Eating together with friends and loved ones is also a veritable source of support during these times.

Stay physically active. With most of us homebound, it’s easy to remain sedentary. Exercise has long-term positive effects on your heart, arteries, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, mood, and weight management. Even a half-hour of chores around the house, or else a quick online aerobics video, can have benefits for your body.

Follow safe food handling practices. Foodborne illness can be prevented from safe food handling and observing food safety tips from shopping to your kitchen.

Stay hydrated. This is important especially during the warm summer season — at least 8-10 glasses of water is recommended daily, with the exception of those with fluid restrictions (e.g. kidney or heart disease). Other options include fruits and vegetables in water, such as unsweetened lemon water or cucumber water. Avoid too much caffeine, alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverages.