Just before the stay-at-home orders started a few weeks ago, the rush to the supermarket began and with it, a whole lot of panic-buying, and stocking up on ‘comfort foods.’ Suddenly, it was a brave new food world and even those who’d steered clear of pasta or rice for decades found themselves standing on long lines, shopping carts filled to bursting with extra-long-shelf-life processed foods, sweets and carbs, carbs, carbs. Goodbye keto, hello Pillsbury Doughboy.
For those of us who’ve thus far been fortunate enough to stay well, the carb creep-up — visible on our bathroom scales – has become a common, but unhealthy, byproduct of these strange, stressful times. But here’s another reason to cool it on the carbs: excess weight and obesity is one of the risk factors that can put you in the COVID-19 crosshairs. As we’ve seen in countries hardest-hit by the virus, the majority of those who died from the disease also had sugar dysregulation and metabolic problems, so getting your weight and carb addiction under control has never been more important. My greatest wish for you is to survive the pandemic – and emerge in better nutritional shape than ever. Now’s the time to gently start taking back control, and cutting those carbs back down to size. The good news is, these metabolic problems are reversable within weeks, so let’s get begin:
1) Help! I’ve gone carb crazy!
First of all, craving carbs in uncertain times is not a sign of weakness or a personal failing. It’s actually a fairly common hormonally-driven reaction to extreme stress, albeit not a healthy one. The stressed brain craves a carb fix and the fastest, and unhealthiest, way to get it is with sugary, starchy processed foods which are chemically engineered (literally) in the lab by food scientists to make you crave them. And the more carbs you eat, the more carbs you crave – pretty much the definition of a vicious circle. So, instead of beating yourself up over carb cravings, let go, move on, and commit to getting your metabolic house in order – to help keep COVID-19 out of it.
2) Step away from the chips.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our normal daily routines and eating patterns upside down. For those used to being in an office all day, suddenly being confined at home with 24/7 access to a fully stocked fridge – and little exercise – can set off multiple daily bouts of snacking, triggered more by anxiety and stress than actual hunger. So, if you’re hitting processed convenience foods and snacks like chips, cookies and ice cream at all hours, trash ‘em now!
3) Snack smarter, by drinking first.
Then, when you feel snack attacks coming on, what you may actually be experiencing is thirst, so think liquids first – tea, bone broth or even coffee (without sugar) to help fill the gap. After that, if you feel you’re truly hungry and need a more fulsome snack, then snack on foods that deliver benefits, like immunity-boosting nutrients, fiber and/or satiating fats – or all of the above. A few snacks that make the cut: organic, unsweetened nut butters; hard-boiled eggs; hard cheeses; olives; frozen berries with organic plain full fat Greek yoghurt; home-made kale chips; fermented dill or kosher pickles; and chia pudding to name a few. Got leftovers? A small quarter-sized portion of last night’s dinner is an easy daytime snack go-to.
4) Or, get smarter – and don’t snack at all!
Cows evolved to spend most of their days grazing. Humans, however, did not. Unlike our bovine brethren, when we feed ourselves multiple times a day between meals, all that grazing leads to the weight and metabolic problems – exactly what we should avoid, particularly now in the COVID-19 era. If you’re one of those fighting the metabolic battle – and roughly 42% of the adult U.S. population currently is – it may be time to quit flooding your body with a constant stream of food. Instead, get into intermittent fasting (IF), which is, in simplest terms, doing dinner early and breakfast late. By incorporating deliberate periods of fasting into your daily routine, say, in 14 -to-16 hour increments, you enable your body to enter a prolonged “fasting state” that keeps insulin levels low, reduces blood sugar and signals your body to burn fat stores – a metabolic trifecta! Better yet, a regular IF habit can help slow aging and optimize mitochondrial function which means greater protection against many of the diseases we fear most, in addition to COVID-19.
5) Ditch the sweet stuff.
Pandemic or not, when it comes to carbs, sugar takes the cake. It’s utterly rotten stuff and we all know it. It fans the flames of inflammation and weakens immunity, damaging the heart, the brain and just about every system in the body. The less sugar you consume, the better, especially now when all your systems need to be working optimally to help fend off COVID-19. If you must sweeten, do so sparingly and sweeten smarter:
- use healthier minimally-processed alternatives that won’t spike blood sugar, like raw, organic stevia, or monkfruit.
- try steer clear of chemical Frankensweeteners like Sweet’N Low, Splenda and Equal.
- skip agave, maple syrup, honey and molasses too – they’re still forms of sugar that undermine health no matter how harmless they may seem.
6) Start slashing.
To slash sugar intake quickly – as well as the extra pounds you may have put on in the past few weeks – going low-carb is a great way to do it. In addition to the weight management benefits, carb-cutting is a simple, natural, drug-free way to stabilize both blood sugar and insulin by not constantly spiking them in the first place. Whether you’re getting reacquainted with low carb eating or just starting out, you can count carbs like a champ (if that’s your thing) or simply start curbing them by:
- eliminating sugar: white, brown, even if it’s raw, organic and/or non-GMO
- leaving soft drinks, baked goods, desserts on the shelf
- avoiding all processed foods which are loaded with chemicals, preservatives and nutrient-free ingredients that undermine and weaken immunity
- skipping all grains as much as possible, even the ones you might think are ‘healthy,’ like quinoa and brown rice, which, thanks to their high carb counts, dump loads of sugar straight into the bloodstream
- not overdoing beans and legumes, as they too break down to sugar, flooding the bloodstream and making the pancreas work overtime to produce enough insulin to bring your blood sugar levels down
- keeping starchy veggies like beets, carrots, corn, parsnips, white and/or sweet potatoes, yams, acorn and butternut squash to a minimum
- staying far away from vegetable oils like canola, corn, grapeseed and soybean – which sound healthy and are anything but. Instead, use extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and ghee.
7) But dang it, I want a treat!
OK with making the adjustments above but still crave an occasional post-meal indulgence? Then do a deep Pinterest dive on make-at-home, low-carb, low-glycemic and/or ketogenic treats, or better yet, tuck into small portions of low sugar blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Add a little stevia to your berries plus ground flax, nutmeg and cinnamon and enjoy a pie-like treat minus the heaps of crappy-for-you ingredients like sugar and flour. If you’re having the occasional alcoholic drink – and by that I mean no more than one or two every other day or so – put the beer stein down and think no-carb whiskey, vodka or tequila. Also, avoid mixers which tend to be loaded with sugar.
8) OK, so you panicked and packed your pandemic pantry with crap – now what?
Let’s say you over-bought on pasta, rice, canned beans and so on. Under normal circumstances, I’d take say march that stuff right back to the grocery store. And though I do still strongly feel that way, while we’re in in lockdown, assuming you are limiting trips to the grocery store, I’ll cut you a little slack – the deal being that once we are out of the woods, or your back-log of supplies runs low – you’ll restock with the healthiest and lowest carb foods possible. So, for now, if you’re going to use what you have, do so very sparingly, and try these ways to lighten the carb load:
- You overbought pasta…..then mix 3 parts non-starchy vegetable noodles, think spaghetti squash, shirataki noodles, zucchini, cucumber, celery, kelp – to 1 part pasta – and toss in a few fistfuls of spinach to boost the belly-filling fiber content and keep the carbs very low.
- You stockpiled brown rice… then mix 3 parts cauliflower rice or shirataki rice to 1 part brown rice, and add some sautéed cabbage, kim chi and/or spinach for a filling, gut-loving, lower-carb side dish.
- You cleared out the canned bean aisle…Re-work your turkey chili recipe and, cut it down from three to just one can of rinsed, organic black beans or swap them for one can of white kidney beans which are far lower in carbs. Once you’ve gone through your bean backlog, ditch the beans altogether, add diced zucchini and top with avocado to fill out your chili bowl.
9) Show compassion…to yourself.
If you are wrestling with stress eating, weight and metabolic issues, be kind to yourself, acknowledge the struggle, accept it, forgive yourself – and remember to keep forgiving yourself as you move through these stressful times. As you go, take small steps towards improving the state of your physical and mental health, be it a morning walk around the neighborhood, a group ZOOM meditation session or a nightly, stress reducing hot bath before bed. Whatever you do, be kind to yourself in these stressful times, show yourself love and compassion throughout this journey we’re on. Don’t waste time and energy feeling ashamed, beating yourself up, or getting stuck in regret about over-indulgences past; they’re all history now. What matters most is the future you create – so make it a healthy and loving one.