By Sarah Keogh, Dietitian and Nutritionist
The changes and restrictions of the past few weeks have been quite an upheaval. Many of us are full time at home with limited access to all our usual exercise and food. It’s not difficult to feel out of sorts and lacking in energy. We take a look at some of the key foods to keep eating, the right nutrients to help your mental health and how to put it all together – especially if it is not you doing the shopping anymore!
Fill up on fish
Rich in healthy omega-3 fats, oil-rich fish are an amazing food to eat. Omega-3s make up a substantial part of your brain and people who eat a lot of fish get less dementia and have better mental health. Fish is also rich in B vitamins, needed to help release energy from food as well as calm the nervous system. Salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines are great sources of omega-3s – fresh or tinned. But white fish can add some too. Sea bass is actually a good source of omega-3 and a great alternative if the other fish are a bit too strong for you. Aim to have fish at least twice a week. Hate fish? You can still get some of the benefit by taking a fish oil supplement with around 500mg of EPA every day.
Often seen as fattening, nuts are actually a great food – packed with nutrients. Nuts are a good source of iron and magnesium, two key nutrients for mental health. Magnesium is important for healthy sleep and iron helps to get oxygen to all the cells in your body. A handful of nuts a day is a great way to top up on these key nutrients. Try almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios or brazil nuts. You can eat them as a snack or add them to cereals and yoghurt.
Focus on Fibre
Reduced exercise can have a negative impact on digestion, slowing everything down. Adding plenty of fibre can help keep things moving as they should. Wholegrain foods are a great source of fibre – wholegrain breads, high fibre cereals, brown rice and pasta. If you are checking labels, look for foods that have 6g of fibre per 100g or more. Seeds are another great way of adding fibre. All seeds are high in fibre – linseeds/flaxseeds, sesame, chia, sunflower. They are also a great source of zinc which helps maintain a strong, healthy immune system.
Build your bones
Don’t neglect your bone health! Although you may not be able to get out for your usual walk, do try to do some exercise. Your bones really need to do some work to stay healthy. Even walking around your home or garden (if you have one) or going up and down stairs helps to keep hips strong. Lifting some light weights – even cans of beans or bottles of water help to keep wrists and spine stronger. Go online and look up some of the exercise videos aimed at people who are cocooning. Croi.ie have lots of excellent, free, videos that you can try.
When it comes to food, the key nutrient for bones is calcium. You need about 800mg of calcium every day. 3 servings of milk, cheese and/or yoghurt everyday will get you well on your way to what you need. One serving is 200mls of milk; 30g (or two thumbs) of cheddar cheese; or 125g pot of yoghurt. If you don’t take dairy, try a calcium fortified plant-based milk alternative e.g. soya or almond. You need three servings a day here as well. If you don’t take either, you might want to think about a calcium supplement.
One big problem with cocooning is that you might be getting even less vitamin D than usual. Vitamin D can be hard to come by in Ireland at the best of times and it’s a key nutrient for your immune system as well as your bones. Studies show that older people who have good levels of vitamin D have fewer respiratory infections. Vitamin D also helps you to absorb calcium and build healthy bones. The best approach here is to take a daily supplement of vitamin D of 10 micrograms. Even if you do get out into the sunshine, studies are clear that older people find it harder to make vitamin D and a supplement is usually necessary to get the best benefit.
Putting it all together
Take a look at the foods listed above and add them to your shopping list for this week. See what you can do to build them into what you are eating most of the time. And don’t worry if you find you are having more treats than you would normally. Comfort food is called comfort food because it works and this is a time when lots of us need a little comfort. Just balance out any extra treats by making sure you bring in the key foods that will help your body feel better. Make sure you are drinking plenty of liquids (and not just alcohol…) so that you stay hydrated. And keep talking and communicating. Even a little social interaction can lift your mood and help give you the energy to do a little more exercise and prioritise the foods that will give you a greater nutritional boost.