Unintended Consequences of the Pandemic

Laura Del Guerra, RD, CDE, Take Control Health Coach

If the last eight months have taught us anything, it is that EVERYTHING changes during a pandemic. There are obvious things – wearing masks, no hugging or shaking hands, postponing vacations, and missing our loved ones. And unfortunately, some less obvious internal changes have been taking place as well. Among these are increased cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and anxiety.

During the the past three months, we talked to over 1800 people about their recent lab results. Early on a trend began to emerge; many had gained weight, total and LDL (bad) cholesterol had increased from 2019, and blood pressure was often higher in those who had gained weight. Triglycerides, the most common type of fat in the body, rose for many as well. Our conversations revealed that these increases are tied to lifestyle reactions to the pandemic.

When the pandemic began, we all hoped it would be short-lived. Staying home triggered nesting instincts, and people began gardening, baking, and cooking. That potentially sounds like a healthy choice, but it turns out people are turning more to comfort food. We’ve become a nation of bread bakers, sauces with butter, roasts with mashed potatoes and gravy, cookies, and other baked treats. As restaurants struggle to survive, ordering take out suddenly feels like a civic duty. And what we hoped would be a few months of short-term choices has turned out to be negative long-term lifestyle changes. It’s like when you go on a road trip and buy some indulgent treats, but the road trip doesn’t end.

Now that the journey has gone on longer than we planned, our bodies are starting to experience the unpleasant side effects that a change in diet brings. For some, our clothes are tighter, and even those who haven’t gained weight are seeing a negative impact on internal blood markers. People are experiencing anxiety and mental health symptoms more than ever.

Now is the perfect time to make some adjustments that will bring us out of the pandemic with healthier bodies and minds. Here are some simple tips to get started:

  • Think balance. Meals should include a mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and protein. Choosing just three of these food groups every time you eat will instantly improve your diet.
  • Watch intake of saturated fat. Red meat (especially the prime cuts), cheese and other dairy products made from whole or 2% milk, poultry with skin, butter, ghee, and tropical oils like coconut and palm oil.
  • Share your homemade baked goods. Share or donate homemade bread, baked goods, and other high-calorie treats.
  • Increase omega-3 fatty acids. Replace some of the saturated fat in your diet with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Examples include tuna, salmon, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed.
  • Increase soluble fiber. Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. You can find soluble fiber in oatmeal, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples, and pears.
  • Monitor portions. Large plates = large portions. Switching to a smaller plate, filling your plate with vegetables first, and using your hand as a tool to estimate portion sizes will help decrease portion size, and along with it, calories.
  • Seek help for anxiety. Your healthcare benefits likely include no-cost mental health and life-balance services to all participants and anyone living in their household. Access your EAP or counseling benefits through your company's HR benefits website.

It looks like we are in this for the long haul and while we do need sources of stress relief and comfort during these challenging times, we need to remember to look for it in places other than food. Taking care of ourselves and choosing healthy options now will bring us through the pandemic. We’ll come out on the other side energized and ready to hit the ground running!