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Ask the dietitian
Sometimes, you just need an answer to one or two nutrition questions, rather than a whole lecture on how to eat better.
Dear dietitian: I’ve always enjoyed a nice meal at a restaurant when celebrating Valentine’s Day. What are alternative ways to celebrate so that Valentine’s Day doesn’t feel like another ordinary day?
Dear Valentine: Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been practicing creativity and reimagining our celebrations. As we do the same with Valentine’s Day, it can help to first identify the meaning of that holiday for you and what you want out of it. You might want romance, the ability to share and receive tokens or words of love and appreciation, or you might just want to do something fun in good company. Below are some ideas for ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day, no matter if you spend the day alone or with family, friends, partners or pets!
- Sign up for a virtual class or event. Classes range from cooking, dancing, wine tasting, cocktail making and art. Events range from comedy sessions to musical performances. Many options are found at Outschool for kids and Eventbrite .
- Pack up or pick up some food and picnic anywhere, such as in your backyard, at a park or a destination like the beach.
- Cook a fancier-than-normal meal at home with members in your household. You can even do a double date with another household and share part or all of the experience through Zoom.
- Recreate the meal you had on your first date with your partner or any other memorable meal. Make or buy a Valentine’s Day treat for your pet.
- Bake Valentine’s Day treats and attach them to handwritten notes to deliver to your loved ones. For a non-bake option, you can try the recipe below.
CHOCOLATE CHERRY BITES
1 cup whole raw almonds
6 to 8 Medjool dates, pitted
½ cup dried unsweetened cherries
3 heaping tablespoons of semi-sweet chocolate chips
¼ cup raw cashews
- Process almonds in food processor until finely chopped. You don’t want the almonds to be as fine as flour. It’s fine to have some bigger pieces.
- Remove 1/3 of the almonds and set aside.
- Add dates to the almonds in the processor and process until finely chopped.
- Add cherries and process until ingredients combine.
- Add chocolate chips and cashews. Process until chopped.
- Add almonds back in and process slightly to mix ingredients together.
- Pour into medium-sized bowl.
- Roll into small balls (~1- 1 ½ tablespoons each). Optional: dust with cocoa powder for a truffle-like product!
Dear dietitian: After all the holiday eating plus the lack of exercise during the shelter-in-place orders, I’m ready to make changes to my diet. The challenge is that I love food too much and don’t have the discipline to stick to a diet. Is there a way to eat healthier that won’t leave me hungry or feeling deprived?
Dear food-lover: January tends to bring in an energy as we reflect upon what we want to be different in the new year. With this energy, it can be tempting to make big eating changes like drastically cutting back on calories; swearing off all sugars, carbs and animal products; or going fully in on the latest weight loss diet. If these types of approaches leave you hungry and deprived, they are not sustainable and may leave you more discouraged and less confident about your abilities to change your ways.
Fortunately, there are other approaches to try since one approach doesn’t fit all when it comes to eating. Ideas of various ways to work with your body and its natural desire to eat enough and eat enjoyable foods are below:
- Instead of focusing on what NOT to eat, focus on what you want to add in. Telling yourself you are not going to eat _____ all day takes much more willpower and restraint than telling yourself that you are going to incorporate more vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, etc.
- Think about ways to “round out” your eating. No matter if you are eating a frozen burrito, take out, or even just a yogurt, adding in items like fruit or cut-up veggies can boost the nutritional quality and satisfaction of that meal or snack.
- Focus on how you want to feel after eating. Tune into your body so that you eventually learn what combination of foods and amounts can get you there (or at least close). This takes practice and a quiet setting if this is a new behavior.
- Focus on structure with meals and meal planning. This ensures you eat regularly throughout the day so that you don’t end up grazing or finding yourself so hungry that you overeat. You can eat more in line with your values when plan ahead.
Dear dietitian: I always look forward to our family get-togethers during the holidays. I love being able to spend time with my loved ones and indulge in some delicious, home-cooked food. Even though we can’t get together this year, I would still like to connect with my loved ones in ways similar to our traditional holiday meals. Do you have any suggestions?
Dear all of us: Enjoying and sharing food with others is central to the holidays. It is a way we connect with our families, friends, co-workers, culture, religion, and our emotions and stories of the past. Even though we can’t have our typical holiday celebrations this year, we can still explore workarounds or new traditions to connect with each other over our favorite holiday food. Below are ideas on how we can still use food to experience connection and meaning during this holiday season.
- Will you be missing a favorite holiday dish? Ask for the recipe or see if that creator of that dish would be willing to do a virtual cooking lesson so that you could make it on your own.
- Create a recipe scrapbook that includes family recipes, stories and photos behind the recipes that can be passed on to others.
- Search the web for a recipe that sounds similar to a holiday dish you enjoy. Regardless of the result, you can celebrate the process and note ways to make it different next time.
- Order the same holiday meal or make a holiday beverage or dessert to enjoy virtually with friends or family. You can come together for select moments like the toast, pre-meal prayer, dessert or the entire eating experience.
- Know someone who could use a mood boost? Make or buy extra food and drop it off at their home.
Dear dietitian: With the upcoming flu season and the spread of COVID-19, I want to make sure my immune system is in top shape. What should I eat to boost my immunity?
Dear in-search-of-a-boost: The term “boost” is often used for nutrition supplements and considered more of a marketing term than a scientific one. In reality, our immune systems are quite complex and depend on more than just a single food or nutrient to work effectively. Focusing on healthy lifestyle behaviors (adequate sleep, moderate exercise, ability to cope with and embrace stress, and a minimally processed, balanced, and varied diet) is your best bet in supporting your immune system so that it can do its job well.
Foods like citrus, red peppers, broccoli, salmon, beans, nuts, whole grains, plant and animal proteins are examples of immune-supporting foods that provide nutrients like protein, iron, vitamins C and D, and zinc to support the regular growth and function of our immune cells. Food has other health protective components like antioxidants, prebiotics and probiotics to keep you well, which most supplements do not. Supplements can be recommended if nutrition deficiencies are suspected and should be discussed with your physician.
It is still too early to know the role of nutrition and nutrient supplementation in COVID-19 risk and severity. Hand washing, mask wearing and socially distancing as a community remain the most recommended ways to prevent the virus from spreading to us and our families.
Dear dietitian: While many are working on weight loss, I’m constantly struggling with keeping weight on. Do you have recommendations for ways to gain weight and keep it on?
Dear underweight friend: The main ingredients for healthy weight gain are (1) having regular meals and snacks — five or so eating occasions distributed evenly throughout the day; (2) strength training; (3) consistency; (4) and patience. When we skip or delay meals, we do not always make up for the under-eating that has occurred. Plus, eating regularly throughout the day helps to preserve our existing muscle mass. Strength training 3-4x times a week to the point of muscle fatigue will stimulate the body to “grow” muscle. You may find that your appetite naturally increases to meet the needs of your “growing” muscles.
If you have a BMI<18.5, and are not able to gain weight, weight-bearing or muscle-strengthening exercises, 3-4x a week, can help counteract the increased risk of bone disease — which is one of the main health concerns with a low BMI. Try exercises such as walking, hiking, yoga, pushups, and movements involving weights or resistance bands.
Our genetics and age also play roles in our body shape and weight. Two non-related people can gain vastly different amounts of weight when fed the same amount of calories. To at least a certain extent, we need to accept what we have control over and what we don’t.
Dear dietitian: Since these days we’re home so much, feeding our kids so many meals and snacks, I’ve started to feel more stressed than usual … especially since my children are picky eaters. What can I do?”
Dear stressed-out parent: Give yourself permission to lighten your load. Figure out how many meals a week you can provide based on your interest and energy levels and plan for already prepared fresh or frozen meals on the other days.
You can also lighten your load by changing your expectations about feeding. From a whole-child perspective, it is most important to sit down and enjoy eating with your kids. As a parent, you are responsible for structure: the What, When, and Where to feed your kids. Your kids are responsible for Whether or Not and How Much to eat. Meal-time battles and stress often come from the parents taking on the kids’ responsibilities. Pressuring kids to eat certain foods or amounts is counterproductive and has been shown to decrease their interest in eating those foods in the long run. See this resource for more information on childhood feeding.
Dear dietitian: “I’m finding myself constantly craving sugar during shelter in place. What can I do to stop wanting and eating sugar?”
Dear sugar-craver: “Pause and ask yourself, ‘What am I needing right now?’ Enjoying food is an option; sugary foods can provide us temporary comfort when we are stressed, bored, feeling overwhelmed, or lonely. But, it may not be the only or the most effective option.”
Sugar cravings can be physiologic and happen when our bodies are asking for more food or more of a certain type of food. Fasting for too long, eliminating carbs, exercising intensely or for long periods of time all can result in a physiologic craving for something sweet and calorie-dense. Having balanced meals and snacks that combine 2-4 food groups, and eating every 3-5 hours (or when the body starts to signal hunger) can help to keep you satisfied so cravings don’t surface.