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These are the Nutrition Basics We Forgot During the Pandemic, According to a Sports Dietitian

Plan your meals around these nutrition basics to feel stronger and more energized.

Photo: Getty Images

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When coronavirus started spreading far and wide more than a year ago and localities started locking down, life changed pretty quickly. Unsurprisingly, a lot of our behaviors changed too, some of which may not have returned to normal yet. 

In March, a research review assessing how lockdown affected the eating habits of multiple populations was published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition. It looked at 23 published papers and concluded that overall dietary habits changed during the pandemic, but in a myriad of ways. For some people, that looked like more fresh produce, home cooked meals, and drinking less alcohol. Others ate less fresh produce and more sweet, fried, and processed foods. Some studies found that people consumed more alcohol and exercised less. 

Dawn Holmes, a sports dietitian for the OhioHealth Runner’s Clinic, was shocked at the incidence of disordered eating during the pandemic. The National Eating Disorders Association stated that calls to their hotline were up 70 to 80 percent during the pandemic. Since hearing that, Holmes turned her focus to educating young people about prevention and healthy eating habits, as younger ages is the time when things start to manifest. But even adults who might not have disordered eating, per se, could use a refresher on the basics of fuel after a tough 18 months of change.

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There is no definitive reason why our eating patterns changed: Every single person has had their own unique experience of what lockdown and the pandemic as a whole has been like, including food access, economic stress, trauma, and challenges around body image. 

Holmes thinks that just looking at ourselves more often is partly to blame. Never before have we had to constantly look at our own reflection during basic interactions, but that is what happens when we’re forced to socialize and work over video calls. 

3 Nutrition Basics to Keep in Mind

Holmes prompts us to go back to these nutrition basics to regain normalcy and improve our running and daily life. 

Are you eating regularly?

In working with a range of people, Holmes has come to realize how little people are taught about healthy eating habits. “There’s so much, just like the basics of how to eat that we just have never been taught,” she says. “And one of those is just eating regularly.” 

Starting with breakfast, we should be eating every three to four hours, she says. Prone to feeling that afternoon slump? “There’s a reason that you’re crashing, because from lunch to dinner is probably a good six to seven hours for lots of people.” 

For highly active people, skipping a meal means losing out on necessary calories and nutrients to sustain you. It can also mean missing out on crucial nutrients. Vitamin D, calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and iron are commonly underconsumed in the U.S., which can leave you feeling fatigued, moody, unable to concentrate, forgetful, and impair your immune system. All of this is going to make your day-to-day harder as well as your workouts and can negatively affect recovery. 

Without enough food, you just can’t perform your best. 

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Get your snack on.

Holmes admits that she didn’t learn about the power of eating regularly herself until she was working with a dietitian who was pregnant and snacking all the time. “I started sort of mimicking her eating patterns and I just felt so much better. I can focus so much better in the afternoon and I’m not starving when I get home,” she says.

That’s right, snacking is the key to getting enough calories to fuel your day. And it can also help you make smarter food choices. 

Craving sugar? Your brain is probably asking for carbohydrates for energy. “If you have that afternoon snack, then or even something small on the way home, then you’re not so hungry, you’ve taken the edge off, and you can make much better choices while you’re making dinner or in terms of what you will have for dinner,” says Holmes. 

A well-balanced snack (something that has protein and carbohydrates) will give you a boost in energy and allow you to feel satisfied until your next meal. 

“As a runner, especially with women, it’s a way to get some extra protein in there because often, protein isn’t as big of a focus with female athletes in general,” says Holmes. 

Some solid snack pairings: bell peppers and nuts; carrots and hummus; Greek yogurt and fruit; cheese and crackers; cottage cheese and fruit; graham crackers and peanut butter; and an apple or banana and peanut butter. 

Holmes also recommends an evening snack for people who are training heavily. “There are some misconceptions about eating before bed that it’s going to cause weight gain. That’s not true,” she says. She recommends a dairy-based snack because the casein protein will aid in recovery while you sleep.

If you wake up feeling incredibly hungry, that is an indication you didn’t eat enough the previous day. A late night snack could help add some more fuel where you’re missing it. 

RELATED: Why Eating Protein Before Bed May Benefit Your Workout

Make mealtime count.

Not sure where to start when it comes to planning a well-balanced meal? Take a look at The Athlete’s Plate, developed by dietitians at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in collaboration with the U.S. Olympic Committee. It’s made up of three plate components your meals should be focused around: vegetables, grains, and protein and paired with a nutritious beverage. 

Holmes emphasizes a calcium beverage with each meal for athletes. “I’m always really encouraging milk or soy milk because it has both the calcium but also the carbohydrates and the protein to help them meet those needs.”

Among those pairings, variety is key. “We want to make sure that not all our vegetables are raw vegetables,” says Holmes, “like we’re not just doing salads, because if you are training and competing, you’re not going to get enough fuel with just the salads, right?” 

It also gives recommendations for seasonings and fats to cook with, as fats are also necessary for daily function and for training. And you can select plates based on the amount of training you are doing: easy, moderate, and hard. 

Like any dietary recommendation, these plates are not meant to be gospel, but are a great jumping off point for understanding how to build a meal that has everything you need.

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