Dietitian sees one positive pandemic outcome: A shift in how we think about food

Cara Rosenbloom

THE WASHINGTON POST – The novel coronavirus has had a jarring impact on society, but one positive outcome I’ve seen is a shift in how people think about food and nutrition.

Long lines at food banks, combined with rising prices and supply chain issues, have raised the public’s awareness of how easily the average American can become food insecure.

But I’ve also seen a surprising uptick in comments from dietitians saying that the pandemic has changed their clients’ lives for the better.

One good sign: An April 20 Axios/Ipsos poll found that 45 per cent of Americans said they were cooking more in the previous month while just six per cent were cooking less than usual.

And, anecdotally, my fellow dietitians are seeing that many of their clients are also developing healthier lifestyle habits and becoming more aware of where their food comes from.

I reached out to colleagues to gather some good-news stories. I hope they provide a bit of inspiration during a difficult time.

COOKING WITH KIDS

In my household, we eat dinner together most weeknights.

But with school cancelled, we’re eating breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

Sure, we argue over whose night it is to load the dishwasher, but we’re also cooperatively cooking together and trying different foods when our staples

aren’t available. Such experimentation is a good thing – especially for children.

“It is important for children to try, or at least be exposed to, a variety of flavours and textures in their youth,” said Anja Grommons, a dietitian in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who told me that many clients report they are cooking together and trying new recipes. (In fact, Google Trends shows that searches for recipes in early April spiked to holiday season levels.)

“This allows them to reap the benefits of a wealth of nutrients, and sets them up to be adventurous and balanced eaters in adulthood.”

Grommons said that touching and smelling ingredients while cooking may make children more inclined to taste new foods.

This can help kids become more interested in foods they once rejected, and provides essential culinary skills that will be useful for life.

Grommons is hopeful that the memory of cooking together during quarantine will stay with kids and that they’ll want to continue the practice.

SKIPPING FAD DIETS

Dietitians report that clients are less interested in dieting, and more interested in sustainable eating patterns that enrich their long-term health. The search term “weight loss diets” fell sharply in March and April, according to Google Trends.

“I have definitely seen less talk and fewer questions about fad diets” said Melissa Nieves, a dietitian with Fad Free Nutrition based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“I think people have rightfully put their attention on their protection, survival and well-being during this pandemic.

“That also includes eating habits becoming more practical and less centred on what diet culture says we should or shouldn’t eat to reach a socially constructed body ideal.” Nieves said her clients have also become more aware of the importance of evidence-based information, as opposed to faddish health advice.

She hopes this will lead to clients developing a positive relationship with food, instead of following nutrition fads that have no scientific basis.

Dietitians I spoke to say many clients are embracing food, rather than being constantly restrictive and diet-minded.

Nieves said she’s seen a rise in baking, coupled with less shame around comfort food during the pandemic. It’s a trend she hopes will stay.

She works with clients to remove guilt about food. After all, it is possible to eat well and enjoy your food at the same time.

MORE TIME FOR SELF-CARE

It’s common for people to see a dietitian for advice, yet not have the time to follow the suggested protocol. The dietitians I spoke with said some clients now have more time to implement new habits, and they are seeing amazing results.

“I have one client with high blood pressure who used to travel four days a week for work,” said Eileen McMahon, a dietitian with Phoenix Nutrition in Phoenix. “I asked him to keep a food record when he was travelling before the pandemic and then I performed a nutrient analysis. I compared it to his food record after the pandemic. His daily sodium intake was cut in half!” When McMahon’s client began cooking at home, he had greater control over his sodium intake, which ultimately lowered his blood pressure readings.

Cooking at home also provides more control over the amount of sugar you eat, and allows you to add more vegetables. It’s a big gain for overall health, and one I hope will continue.

At a recent medical appointment, McMahon’s client learnt that his new healthy habits meant his doctor could decrease the dosage of his blood pressure medication by 50 per cent.

“It’s rewarding to see so many improvements in my clients’ health due to just one thing: more time in their own kitchen,” said McMahon.

Maya Feller, a dietitian in Brooklyn, has seen similar results with her clients. “Since the lockdown, I’ve seen an increase in self-monitoring and tracking behaviours,” said Feller, who works with people diagnosed with hypertension, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

Her patients now have time to monitor blood sugar and blood pressure numbers daily.

“We’ve seen those numbers trending down in relation to nutrition and lifestyle modification, such as making time for intentional physical activity,” said Feller.

Since covid-19 seems to be more severe in people with chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, it’s a good time for these clients to make positive changes.

Feller said clients who usually put in 14-hour workdays are slowing down and prioritising their health.

They report feeling better, and plan to stick with these changes for the long term.

CONSIDERATION FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

Nicole Stefanow, a dietitian in Ramsey, New Jersey, said the temporary inconvenience of not being able to get everything we need from the grocery store is a good exercise in getting back in touch with our food system.

Anecdotally, people have been connecting with farmers, thanking grocery workers and learning more about the food supply chain.

Food doesn’t magically appear on grocery store shelves, and the workers involved in the process are finally being recognised for their vital role in our overall wellness.

Stefanow said that people in her community are getting fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs from regional farms, which supports local businesses and raises awareness of how food choices affect the environment and our carbon footprint.

“If people continue to get produce boxes from local and regional farms, they are less likely to buy produce that needs planes, train and automobiles to get here,” Stefanow said.

She also said buying local helps decrease the amount of garbage produced from packaging.

“When you go to the store for produce, you are using a plastic produce bag for each item you put in your cart,” said Stefanow.

“When you get a produce box, everything comes in one recyclable cardboard box.”

It will be interesting to follow up in a year to see how many of these positive changes stick around.

I’m hopeful that when people feel the uplifting outcomes of home-cooking, enjoying food and supporting local businesses, these good habits will continue.