by Beth Shutt, RD, CSSD, LDN

Ed. Note: our coverage of the pandemic and an athlete's response to it continues, with this piece from Beth Shutt, registered dietician, Operations Director at The Run Formula and The Core Diet. Shutt coaches for QT2 Systems, raced triathlon professionally, and knows how to balance restraint and release better than most nutrition coaches we know. If you've been feeling confused about what to do with your food during these turbulent times, read on.

As a registered dietitian, I have always tried to impress upon the athletes who I work with that nutrition is one of your “controllables,” and therefore should be controlled. I know, I know, I can hear you scratching your head, asking “What are you talking about, Beth? That seems a little, well, circular.”

In training and racing few variables present themselves as controllable: the weather? Nope! The competition? Nope! Flat tires from broken glass in the road? Nope! But nutrition? Yes! We can control that for sure. It often takes a long time to realize that we retain this control, but once we do come to the realization and assert ourselves we feel and perform better on race day.

The world took a giant left-hand turn this spring, and we’re stuck right smack in the middle of a pandemic, which has thrown quite a wrench into our race plans! World-changing event aside, managing our nutrition remains a priority for many of us, and keeping that fact present can help in many ways. We can’t control when our kids go back to school, when we can get back to work, or when we will be allowed back into the gym. But, we CAN control our day-to-day nutrition. And—even more so than in racing—if we execute on daily nutrition we will feel better, boost our moods and immune systems, and perform better in our non-athletic lives. The trickle-down effect is amazing. While taking this control of your nutrition will not send the kids back to school any sooner, it will help you to keep from running across the kitchen in a screaming fit threatening to bury the iPad in the backyard, during their fractions lesson on Zoom.

So, while these times may make it feel so much the easier to simply throw your hands up in the air and eat donuts for dinner, allow me to offer an alternative: a focus on nailing your nutrition.

Make a Plan and Stick to It

Okay, don’t all roll your eyes at once! I know this is something that we harp on ALL OF THE TIME. But only because it is so, so important. In case you haven’t noticed, the grocery store is a stressful place right now. What, with the arrows on the floor...So, going in with a general meal plan for the week, and the items that you will need to accomplish that plan, is a huge help. I even have a few ‘Plan B’ options, just in-case Plan A’s option leaves staring at empty shelves. And though it may sound like a lot of work, and it isn’t not, it does save A LOT of stress later on. A little forethought before you head into the store is likely to leave you with exactly what you need in order to make a nutritious and wholesome meal each night.

What Should We Eat?

We all know chips and salsa with a side of ice cream SEEMS like a great idea for dinner. But you also don’t have to be a nutrition professional to know that, while it may make you feel better temporarily, eating like that ultimately just makes you feel worse. Much worse. So instead focus on the foods that we KNOW make you feel better (not to mention those that keep your immune system robust and your weight in check)! Fruits and vegetables are right at the top of that list. Lean proteins, like poultry, lean beef, and low-fat dairy are also very strong performers on the list. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like fatty fish (salmon), walnuts, and avocado should be included, as well.

Nutrient Density

Because fruits and vegetables are such an important part of this equation, they are going to get their very own paragraph! Rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber they truly pack the biggest nutrient punch around. Make it your goal to have five to six servings each day, AT LEAST! Use them as snacks (an apple with peanut butter, cut up veggies with hummus, cottage cheese with fruit on top, clementines alongside a slice of swiss cheese) and incorporate them into each meal (eggs with veggies, for breakfast; a big salad with lean protein for lunch; lean protein for dinner with two servings of veggies on the side).  

What About Alcohol?

Trust me, I understand the urge to have a drink to “unwind” after a long day of watching CNN.  But anything above appropriate, “moderate” use of alcohol can actually contribute to anxiety and overall stress levels. Not to mention make you feel awful the next morning, making it hard to get your workout in or fully function at work or for your children.  Moderate alcohol use is defined by the CDC as UP TO 1 drink for women and UP TO 2 drinks for men per day.  A “drink” is defined as 12 oz of beer (5% alcohol), 8 oz of malt liquor (7% alcohol), 5 oz of wine (12% alcohol) or 1.5 oz of hard liquor (40% alcohol) such as gin, vodka, rum or whiskey.

Cheat Nights

And finally, do still plan for ONE “comfort” meal each week. It can be your favorite (in our house, this is definitely pizza night) that serves as a treat and something to look forward to. This also serves as a way to remain disciplined during the rest of the week!

Most mental health professionals suggest that in stressful times you should do your best to control the controllables. Make nutrition one of those controllables! It is waiting and willing to allow you to. You’ll be in a better mood, avoid many acute illnesses, train more effectively and feel better for it!