Have you heard the term “poundemic”?
It describes the unhealthy eating habits and subsequent weight gain that have plagued many during the pandemic, said Dawn Davoli, a registered dietitian and nutritionist for Excela Health.
“I’d say our eating habits tanked a little bit in the past year,” she said. “When you’re isolated at home, overeating becomes a big deal. Sometimes mindless eating gives you emotional comfort.”
“There are a lot of pitfalls people have fallen into — working from home, kids being home, the normal routine has been thrown out,” said Richard Sitter, lead dietitian with Allegheny Health Network. “More people have been finding themselves either skipping meals or ordering more takeout, or snacking more while they’re working at home or at night.
“They’re getting back into old habits out of the stress we’ve all been going through.”
“It’s something that’s being brought up, I would say, by almost every other patient,” said Dr. Fahad Zubair, director of obesity and medical weight loss at AHN. “It’s been a very challenging time, especially for patients who deal with weight issues that come with a lot of medical problems.”
“Some people have been reluctant to go to the grocery store, so they’re having food delivered,” Davoli said. “Healthy eating and exercise priorities have been pushed to the back burner. Gyms were closed for a long time, and the (winter) climate is not disposed to us getting outdoors.”
But now spring is in the air, the vaccine is getting into arms and life is inching back toward normal. What’s the best way to get back on track?
“The first thing is to understand the cause of where this is coming from, and to help people realize it’s not that they’ve done something wrong,” Zubair said. “There’s no point in blaming someone, because that may lead to more demotivation.
“When patients come to us, they look for guidance and encouragement and ways out,” he said. “Rerouting the mindset is the important thing. Our strategy is centered overall on teaching healthy ways of living: How to think about food. How to find options that are healthier for you.”
Building a healthier lifestyle is an individual thing, he said. For one person, it might mean following a particular diet, for others it might include medications or weight loss surgery.
“If someone needs to lose 100 pounds, they may not necessarily do that; but if they lose 50, they’re going to see great health benefits. Changing lifestyle is very important to long-term success,” Zubair said. “In my experience, the biggest thing is commitment. It just depends on what someone can do in the long run to make the weight loss sustainable.”
Sitter suggests a few questions to help evaluate your pandemic eating habits:
• Are you skipping meals?
• Are there typically more than two food groups on your plate, or are you eating just one type of food at each meal?
• Are you drinking your calories?
• Do you have a positive outlet for stress?
• Are you staying active?
“One of most important things that gets lost in talking about healthy eating is finding a positive outlet for stress. A lot of us, when we have bad days, we tend to eat our emotions. We might reach for the chips or the ice cream, out of comfort,” Sitter said.
“When you do that, what do you end up doing with that stress? Nothing. You might feel good while you’re having that chocolate, but once you’re done, sometimes you’re left with even more stress — ‘What did I just do?’’
Healthy eating “doesn’t have to be that complicated,” Sitter said. “If you want to do something sustainable for the long haul, there are a few simple steps you can take to get back on track and, more importantly, stay on track.”
Here are a few building blocks:
Aim for three balanced meals a day, with at least two food groups in each meal. Go heavier on lean proteins, fruit and/or vegetables and lighter on starches. “Your lean meats and fruits and vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods that will keep you feeling satisfied for a long period of time,” Sitter said.
“Excluding a food group could exclude nutrients that you may only be able to get from that food group,” Davoli said.
Aim to drink 64 ounces of noncaloric beverages each day. People often don’t realize how many calories are in soft drinks, juices or beverages containing sugar, Sitter said.
Aim to cook at least one or two homemade meals each week. “When you start falling into the habit of getting takeout, you’re losing control of what goes into your food,” Sitter said. “Preparing your own food, you’re looking out for your best interests and your family’s best interests, along with your health. And you’ll save money on top of that.”
Clean up your act
A few simple steps can help set you up for success, Davoli said.
• Clear the unhealthy foods out of your pantry and refrigerator, and replace them with healthier alternatives.
• Stock the pantry with shelf-stable items like whole-grain pasta, nuts, beans and canned fish. Stock the freezer with vegetables, berries, pre-cooked grains and lean meats.
• Keep healthy food choices at eye level, where they will be the first thing you see.
• Keep pre-cut fruits and vegetables on hand for quick snacks. Yogurt, hummus and salsa are some healthier dipping options.
• Store snacks in clear containers, so you can see exactly what you have.
• Meal prep to control portion sizes and ingredients.
• Replace high-fat, sugary desserts with something lighter, like angel food cake and berries.
• Add flavor with herbs and spices, instead of salt.
“One nice thing nowadays is that there are a lot of healthy staples that are also budget-friendly,” Davoli said.
Diet versus lifestyle
“I’m a very big proponent of the Mediterranean diet, although it’s not so much a diet as a lifestyle,” Davoli said. “It’s not something you do for a few months, it’s the building blocks for a lifetime of better eating.”
The foundations of that diet include plant foods, herbs, nuts, beans, olive oil and whole grains; moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and eggs; along with seafood and limited consumption of red meat.
“The biggest issue (with diets) is that people tend to go from 0 to 100, diving into these more intense diets like keto or intermittent fasting or whatever,” Sitter said. “What you need to do is ease your way into it. Start with simple steps. Gain some control or consistency into your lifestyle, then add to it.
“Easing in, getting a grasp, is just like learning any new skill. If you’re learning to play baseball, you’re not going under the Friday night lights right off the bat — you’re going to practice. One step at a time creates a more sustainable lifestyle.
“When you’re working back to a healthy lifestyle, there’s always going to be steps forward and steps back. Don’t ever feel shame or blame,” Sitter added. “It’s all about learning from those experiences and building on them so that, as you go forward, those pitfalls don’t happen.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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