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Feeling too stressed during the COVID19 times? Probably your food can optimize your mental wellbeing

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Monday morning view from my window: Chirping birds, yellow trees, clear blue sky, shiny sun, and deserted roads!!! Deserted roads on a Monday morning? Yes, this a Monday in a lockdown….Hello World!

And life stands still under this 21 days lockdown period. So that means no more morning walks, no more traveling to work and meeting colleagues and no more evenings at the coffee shop (of course only till the lockdown). I think we all miss it.

Since most of us are working from home, there are multiple things to be taken care of. With no maids around, one needs to do and plan all the household chores (yeah that also includes whipping up the famous dalgona coffee), plan as per the work schedule, taking care of our family members and buying the groceries. Yes, one of the only privileged duties, that we all enjoy as a breather as we step out of the house is buying groceries.

But the question is how can buying groceries optimize one’s mental wellbeing. Let's discuss it!

Well… when we are under stressful situations, we often resort to foods that are “comforting” (chocolates, cookies, pastries, sweets, and cakes), but these foods may not be the best choice for optimizing your mental wellbeing under the lockdown. Comforting or comfort foods are often rich in calories, refined sugars, and saturated fats but nutrient-poor. They often lack the essential micronutrients and amino acids essential for optimizing mental wellbeing.

Also, many of us are experiencing different kinds of stressors in our environment….yes, of course, COVID 19 is one of them, along with financial management, extended timelines, etc. etc…. which have an impact on our body. During such conditions, our body releases adrenaline. With the release of this hormone, our natural alarm response system starts ringing (alter time).

With the ringing of our body’s natural alarm, our body gets prepared for a fight-flight response and the essential neurotransmitter (adrenaline) is released. Adrenaline shuts down non-essential functions, activates our muscles and enables the body to provide safety and fight against the stressors. This natural alarm system is further accompanied by another essential hormone, Cortisol.

Our body can get confused as well

But during these extended periods of lockdown, our body gets confused. As our daily routine pattern changes our body too tries to sync itself with these tough times. Unfortunately, over extended periods of time, our body’s alarm system rewires itself and this is one of the major reasons that can lead us to re-experience memories, feeling anxious and depressed at the same time, having flashbacks, overthinking about the future, nightmares, sleepless nights and often judging ourselves as unproductive.

Apart from preparing us to deal with the stressors, our body also secretes dopamine and synthesizes serotonin to keep us content, happy and make us feel good. This process further requires a lot of micronutrients. Micronutrients are basically vitamins and minerals. It’s a scientifically proven fact that micronutrients like B complex vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, iodine, and calcium are essentially involved in the synthesis and secretions of these neurotransmitters and amino acids that keep us happy. But currently what is happening is that during this lockdown period with different kinds of stressors around, micronutrients are getting depleted at a faster rate in order to prepare our body for upcoming situations.

So, what one needs to do now?

We all need to replenish our body with these micronutrients in greater quantity from our food. To cope with the stress our ultimate goal should be to increase plant foods and foods which are micronutrient dense and manage our macronutrient intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. We all should try and shift our dietary patterns from an ultra-processed diet (high in fat, sugar and salt foods) to a healthy traditional dietary pattern (high in multigrain, pulses, fruits and veggies, nuts, omega-3 fats, fermented foods and low in processed foods).

Let's compare

A bowl of green gram sprouts (30g) with a pack of potato chips (40g). Green gram sprouts are a good source of plant-based protein, have iron and vitamin C which is readily absorbed by the body (more bioavailable) and is a good source of fiber (keeps the hunger pangs at bay and provides satiety). Now if I also add a tablespoon of mixed seeds (flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, melon seeds) and nuts, it replenishes the body stores of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids and other important micronutrients. Interestingly, blending a mixed fruit smoothie would be far more better for your mental wellbeing than gorging down a commercial sugar-sweetened beverage.

Therefore, next time you step out to buy your groceries doesn’t focus on the calories too much and start focusing on nutrients, especially the ones that are good for your brain!

Would this be sufficient to channelize our body’s over activated alarm system which is interacting with the lockdown stressor? Well, this channelizing mechanism will depend upon a number of factors including, individual nutritional needs, macro and micronutrient demands of the body to deal with the stressors, physiological status and also our microbiome (the healthy bacteria that resides in our gut).

Additional Tips:

  • Kick start your mornings with a nutrient-dense breakfast.

  • Include whole grains, multi-grains, and millets along with pulses in your meals

  • Include real fruits and veggies with peels instead of the frozen and preserved ones

  • Limit sugar intake – check the food labels for the hidden amount of sugar used

  • Shift towards a more traditional dietary pattern and include fermented foods in your meals.


Preeti Khanna

Senior Research Fellow, Department of Food & Nutrition

Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi, India

Research Associate, Centre for Appearance Research, University of West England, Bristol, United Kingdom

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