This year will be marked as a year of continued uncertainty, anxiety and – if you’re like many people – a lot of stress-related eating.
There is no need to stress about stress eating, though. As most of us await the arrival of new vaccines and the hope for a more healthful way of living, here are some tips to get a jump-start on fueling your body to feel better in 2021.
1. Let your inner wisdom guide your eating
That means shifting your focus from calorie counting and self-judgment of food choices to eating more mindfully and listening to what your body is telling you it wants.
“I recommend that patients learn to recognize internal feelings of hunger as well as identify food preferences including how they feel after they eat certain foods,” said Lisa R. Young, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at a Time.”
This also means pausing and giving thought about your eating decisions. If a cookie is going to calm you when you are feeling a bit stressed, it’s OK to eat it. But if you are not really hungry, you might stop and think of other things that will help to soothe you. Doing yoga, writing in a journal, taking a shower or calling a friend may also help you feel better.
2. Include immunity-boosting foods in your diet
This year, focus on filling your plate with foods that contain important healing nutrients that can help to keep you healthy.
Foods including citrus fruits; orange and green veggies like spinach, kale, sweet potatoes and carrots; eggs; beans; and fatty fish and shellfish are packed with vitamins and minerals that support a healthy immune system and can help to give you a sense of control over your health.
Create a list of your favorite immunity-boosting foods and add them to your weekly shopping list. And for a healing beverage, try my antioxidant-rich matcha latte.
The vitamin D in fortified milk is key in helping the body produce proteins that kill bacteria and viruses, while matcha green tea powder is chock-full of the antioxidant EGCG (short for epigallocatechin gallate), which may help strengthen the immune system. You can find many varieties of matcha powder online.
3. Eat more “processed” foods
No, I’m not referring to ultraprocessed foods like sausages and packaged desserts – I mean nutritious frozen and canned foods that can easily be incorporated into healthy meals, like canned beans, tuna and tomatoes; nut butters; and frozen fruits and vegetables.
Purchasing frozen, canned and vacuum-packed foods means we can shop less often and keep our pantries, fridges and freezers stocked, something that can be especially helpful during winter months, explained registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of “Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table.”
“I love using canned beans for my spicy dark chocolate chili bowls and my kids love my pumpkin bread with dark chocolate chips and almonds that uses canned pumpkin,” Taub-Dix said.
In my household, I keep frozen strawberries, blueberries, bananas and peaches all year long to make smoothies and flavored puddings without having to worry about what’s in season. For dinnertime, frozen Brussels sprouts, carrots and broccoli can come in handy for a quick side dish.
4. Experiment with new recipes
Cooking at home gives you control over ingredients and also helps you increase your consumption of nutritious foods. It can also give you a feeling of accomplishment and can be a fun way to get kids interested in healthy foods.
If you are starting to cook for the first time, there are lots of websites, videos, magazines and books that offer delicious recipes that can inspire and guide you. My favorite magazine is Eating Well – I love its wide assortment of fresh, healthy and tasty meals and snacks. I also like allrecipes.com, where you can find a recipe for just about any meal you’re looking for.
Keep in mind, a simple recipe can be just as delicious and impressive as a complicated one, explained Jackie Newgent, a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist and author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.” A basic omelet, a grilled cheese sandwich and a basic spaghetti dish are good dishes to start with.
If you are a seasoned cook, try a new cookbook that challenges your skills or introduces you to a new cuisine! Since my family loves sushi, I’m going to try making recipes with my girls from “Sushi: The Beginner’s Guide” by Aya Imatani.
I also can’t wait to try “The 5-Ingredient Italian Cookbook: 101 Regional Classics Made Simple” by Francesca Montillo.
Cooking can be a fun social activity, too. Even if you can’t gather indoors at restaurants, you can still share healthy recipes on video calls and cook together from afar. For example, you can hop on a call with friends or family and discuss which recipe you’d all like to explore. Then you can each buy the ingredients and then cook “together” via video, Taub-Dix explained.
5. Plantify your dishes
Eighty percent of chronic diseases we face are preventable and reversible by eating a more plant-based diet, according to New York City-based Dr. Robert Graham, who is board certified in both internal and integrative medicine. In fact, switching to more plant-based meals and cooking more are the two silver linings of the pandemic, according to Graham.
An easy way to incorporate more plants and less meat is to simply “plantify” your favorite dishes. “If you have a mean lasagna recipe, skip the meat and add layers of greens, broccoli and peppers and perhaps some pine nuts and cashew cheese instead of the meat and cheese.
If you love Taco Tuesday, make your tacos veggie by skipping the meat and serving black beans or a vegetarian mushroom tofu filling,” Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of “Plant-Powered for Life,” previously told CNN.
For other ideas, check out the nonprofit group Meatless Monday’s family cookbook, which has comfort food recipes and plant-based versions of meals that are typically meat-heavy, like a “meaty” mushroom stew over garlic mashed potatoes.
6. Choose fiber and protein-rich snacks
Boosting your fiber and protein will help you crave less sugar – something that will be helpful as we aim to follow the newly released US dietary guidelines that urge us to limit our sugar intake.
Enjoying fiber-rich fruit as a snack, like berries with some yogurt or chia pudding; sliced apples with nut butter; or a banana and peanut butter graham sandwich can satisfy your sweet tooth while still keeping added sugars in check.
You can also try making your own fiber- and protein-rich snack bars. I often make homemade granola bars with oats, chia seeds, dried cranberries and sunflower seeds.
Even chocolate-containing snacks can boost fiber and quell cravings. “I like making chocolate chip cookie dough bites that are sweetened only with medjool dates, almond extract and mini dark chocolate chips,” said Denver-based registered dietitian nutritionist Kelli McGrane, a dietitian for Lose It! and TheHealthyToast.com in a previous CNN article.
7. Consume more fluids
For optimal health, it’s important to stay adequately hydrated. Even mild dehydration can be a physical stressor to the body, according to Melissa Majumdar, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Consuming an adequate amount of fluids can help to prevent symptoms of dehydration, including fatigue and dizziness. Women should aim to consume 2.7 liters or 91 ounces of fluids daily, and men, 3.7 liters or 125 ounces; these target amounts include all fluids and water-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and soups.
Speaking of soup, chicken soup might have anti-inflammatory effects, which could possibly ease symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections this winter.
8. Lean on others
To help yourself achieve your health goals, it’s important to find some friends or family members who support your goals. It doesn’t have to be a large group – even just one person to share your journey with can be beneficial.
If you have a specific health concern and would like professional guidance with following a specific nutrition plan, I recommend meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist. You can find one in your area on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website.
This New Year especially, it’s important to fuel your body with nutritious foods while enjoying your food choices and savoring every bite. Let’s make 2021 a year of personal wellness by slowly incorporating these tips into your lifestyle to achieve good health in the coming months. It’s something within our control, and it’s something we all deserve!
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.