It might feel like we're fighting a losing battle most of the time. As many of us stay home adhering to the UAE's social distancing regulations amid the coronavirus outbreak, a combination of anxiety, stress and boredom can have us skipping workouts, snacking constantly and generally eating our feelings.
That doesn't mean you should let guilt get to you or start some impossible diet, however. If you, like many other people right now, are struggling to maintain a healthy weight while stuck at home, then these simple bite-sized tips could help you get back on track.
1. Avoid going for prolonged periods without eating
Skipping meals can be very unhelpful, says Rita Martins, a clinical dietician with Mediclinic City Hospital. “You may feel hungrier later and overdo it on unhealthy snacks.”
To ensure you don’t do this, Nadine Aoun, a clinical dietician at Medcare Women and Children Hospital, advises trying to maintain the same routine you have at the office. She suggests eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack in between each meal.
2. Never, ever skip breakfast
You know what they say: "Eat breakfast like a king" and Aoun subscribes to that belief. "Never skip breakfast," she says.
Rawan Nucho, clinical dietician at Aligned Health by Right Bite, agrees. “Starting your day with a balanced breakfast consisting of proteins, carbs and good fats keeps you fuller longer.”
3. But you could try intermittent fasting
Dr Ruba El-Hourani, a clinical dietician at RAK Hospital, says some studies have shown the influence of intermittent fasting on maintaining healthier body weight. “This is a great way, provided that it’s done properly.”
4. Plan your meals ahead of time
“Stick to a daily routine with your exercise, eating, cooking and self-care,” says holistic health and nutrition coach Jo Owen. “Writing up a weekly meal plan can reduce waste, save money and give you focus by cutting down on faff.”
This is the same advice Baraa El Sabbagh, a dietitian, sports nutritionist and recipe book author, gives. “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail, am I right? Whenever you have your meals planned the week before or even the night before, you’re a lot more likely to make better decisions. By doing this, you eliminate having to make last-minute decisions because you’ve reached an absurd level of dizziness because of hunger.”
5. Stock up on healthy snacks
It's near impossible to make sure you're eating healthy snacks if your cupboards are laden with crisps, cookies or cake. But if you avoid the junk food aisles in the virtual or real supermarkets, then you won’t be able to reach for them. “Instead, have healthy snacks like unsalted and raw nuts, dark chocolate, fat-free popcorn, fruits and vegetables,” says Aoun. She suggests having vegetable sticks with guacamole or hummus, low-fat Greek yoghurt with mixed frozen berries or an apple cut up into slices and smeared with organic peanut butter, for example.
Read more: Our comprehensive guide to healthy snacking
6. Make sure half your plate is made up of vegetables
Holistic nutritionist Maria Marlowe, founder of Healthy by Marlowe, says to rely on the power of vegetables. “Set a goal to fill 50 per cent of your plate with veggies at every meal,” she says. “The more vegetables we eat, the more full we feel on fewer calories. Vegetables effectively crowd out other less healthy foods, and provide us with an abundance of nutrients and fibre that we need to stay healthy.”
7. Create the Ideal Plate Ratio
What’s the Ideal Plate Ratio? Marlowe explains that on top of 50 per cent vegetables, we should be aiming for our plates to contain 25 per cent healthy protein and 25 per cent whole grains or additional vegetables, and then some healthy fat on top. For protein, this equates to about 85 to 115 grams of meat or one cup of beans or lentils. Healthy fats include olive oil or avocado. “Eating this way … will help you feel full and energised throughout the day, keep your immune system strong and curtail mindless snacking.”
8. Don’t eat bland foods
If you’re not a professional chef, chances are there are a few bland meals in your repertoire. Keeping your meals exciting and flavourful will make sure you don’t go reaching for the nearest ready-meal or ordering delivery instead. “Add garlic, onion and lots of spices such as turmeric, oregano and rosemary to your meals,” advises Dr Cherry Ezzat, an anti-ageing and functional medical practitioner at Dermalase Clinic.
9. Focus on buying fresh produce
“It’s easy to rely on packaged and processed foods during this time,” says Marlowe. “But we are very lucky to still have access to plenty of fresh food.” She suggests ordering vegetables such as kale, collard greens, broccoli and cauliflower “You may want to focus on longer-lasting produce, such as cabbage, winter squash, citrus, zucchini, apples, garlic and ginger.” She relies on Greenheart Organic Farms in Dubai for her vegetable deliveries.
10. Eat the rainbow
You may have heard this saying before, but perhaps you’re not sure why it’s being said. Dr Ezzat explains that it simply means making sure you eat plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables, as they are high in vitamins and minerals. “Each colour you eat adds to your general health,” she says. “Red protects against heart disease. Blue and purple prevent blood clots and delay cell ageing. Green inhibits carcinogens and boosts detoxification. Orange benefits skin and vision.” The more you eat of these, the more you fill up on health-boosting, nutrient-dense foods instead of high-calorie junk.
11. Do not buy foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce
Owen says we all need to put our focus on “real” food. “Not foods with a list of ingredients you can’t pronounce. The more healthy whole foods you eat – with plenty of protein and healthy fats – the less room you’ll have for higher calorie processed ‘comfort’ foods. When you give your body what it truly needs, you’ll have fewer cravings for empty calories and ‘junk food’, which usually leads to consuming fewer calories overall.”
12. Always have coconut milk and curry paste in the cupboard
There are a few ingredients Marlowe always makes sure she has in the pantry in order to make quick and easy healthy meals. This includes coconut milk and curry paste. “I always keep these on hand to whip up my favourite red Thai curry,” she says. “Simply add fresh or frozen vegetables and a protein of choice and you have a satisfying, flavourful meal ready faster than delivery. Be sure to choose a curry paste without added sugar.” She uses Thai Kitchen products.
13. Try protein-rich vegetable pastas
Instead of opting for regular pasta, try buying a variety with fewer calories, says Marlowe. “There are so many naturally gluten-free bean and legume-based pastas on the market now that taste great and provide more fibre and protein compared to traditional pasta. I recommend throwing a steamer basket full of chopped vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and squash over your boiling pasta water for a super-quick pasta primavera. Simply add some garlic sautéed in olive oil and a little salt and pepper.”
14. Pack in omega-3s
A number of studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids have a range of healthy benefits and this includes reducing symptoms of metabolic syndrome, a collection of conditions that encompasses belly fat, as well as decreasing fat in your liver. Marlowe suggests keeping jarred wild sardines or anchovies in your pantry at all times. “These are a quick and convenient omega-3-packed protein source that can be added to various different dishes.”
15. Make your favourite desserts healthy
“Upgrade your comfort foods,” Marlowe advises. “You can make just about any comfort food healthier – and waist-line friendly.” If you want to make ice cream, for example, she suggests blending up frozen bananas instead. For sweets, you can make cocoa-date truffles.
16. Practice mindfulness when you’re eating
“In these times of social distancing, food does bring joy and comfort and that’s OK,” says Dr El-Hourani. “However, it’s important to be mindful of these extra calories and create a balance to ensure you don’t go overboard.”
She suggests focusing on your food while you chew. “Eat without distraction of your phone, computer or TV, and eat slowly to savour and activate your senses.”
17. Also practice intuitive eating
What is that, you ask? “At its core, intuitive eating is learning to tap into your intuition and honour your body,” Owen explains. She suggests the following these three principles: “Eat nourishing foods when you feel hungry without overdoing it; learn how to feel satisfaction from other areas of life without using food for comfort, satisfaction or feeling of belonging; learn to respect your body for all it does for you and you’ll naturally become more gentle and mindful with your choices.”
Read more: Learn all about intuitive eating
18. Eat three hours before going to bed
This is one of El-Hourani’s top tips. “Try to have your last meal at least three hours before going to bed, so that your body can digest it better.” Good digestion, she says, is key to healthy weight management.
19. Track your meals with a food journal
“While I don’t focus on calorie counting, it can be helpful to have an approximate calorie goal range,” says Owen. “Why not use the extra time to evaluate your food intake and choices?” If you find yourself gaining weight, it’s not always the case that you’re eating too much, she adds. “If you’ve been eating too few calories, weight loss can stall, too. Try playing with the numbers and see what works.” She advises using apps such as Cronometer and MyFitnessPal to track your food. “Most of us carry our phones at all times, which makes tracking convenient.”
20. Limit your caffeine intake
Rawan Nucho, clinical dietician at Aligned Health by Right Bite, says it’s important to cut back on coffee. “Sip more on herbal teas such as peppermint, cinnamon, chamomile, ginger and much more, as they keep your urge to snack low and can provide you with great [health] benefits.”
Aoun says green or black teas are two of nature’s most potent sources of antioxidants, “and sipping them regularly has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke, to which people with diabetes are more susceptible.” For the sake of your blood pressure, choose decaffeinated tea, she adds.
21. Say ‘no’ to flavoured drinks
It’s not just sugary drinks such as Coca Cola and Sprite we should be avoiding, but also juices, smoothies and milkshakes, says Aoun. “[These are] high in calories, sugars and creamers.” Again, she advises sipping on herbal teas or making homemade lemonade with artificial sweetener.
22. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
Not only does drinking water help with digestion and toxin elimination, says Owen, but it’s also an important element in our overall health and can be helpful with weight loss. “Keep your water bottle with you throughout the day for regular sipping and add in fruits like lemon or orange slices, pomegranate or mint for added flavour and natural sweetness.”
Aoun advises getting in at least eight to nine glasses of water per day.
23. Move your body for an hour a day
El Sabbagh, who is also a personal trainer, says we should be moving our bodies for about 60 minutes per day in order to burn calories. “This can definitely help with weight management, but the benefits of exercise definitely don’t stop at physical health. While we’re at home, it’s important to also maintain a positive mindset and your mental health will improve tremendously by exercising at home, because of the endorphins and feel-good hormones released after breaking the slightest sweat.”
El Sabbagh says you don’t have to lift weights and swing kettebells around. “I’ve been working out using water bottles at home, you could put on a YouTube video, engage in bodyweight exercise, yoga, dancing, Pilates, step.” You also don’t need to do an hour in one go. “It could be broken down into 30 minutes per session or even 15 minutes per session and continue to move two to three times per day,” she adds.
24. Mix up your workouts so you don’t get bored
Owen is a big advocate of keeping up an exercise routine while staying at home, but she’s also aware it can get boring if you don’t mix it up. “When we exercise, our body releases endorphins that make us feel good and further motivate us towards eating sensibly, staying focused and keeping a positive mindset.” She advises going online and using platforms such as Instagram and YouTube to find free workouts from local personal trainers and gyms.
25. Take regular activity breaks throughout the day
You don’t have to do actual exercise to make sure you keep moving throughout the day. “Stand up or walk around while you read and answer emails and other messages on your phone,” Martins suggests. “Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take an activity break. For example, take a three to five-minute standing or walking break every hour.” She also reminds us that household chores also count as exercise. “Mop or vacuum fast enough to get your heart pumping.”
Watch this video of mobility workouts you could try:
26. But also rest when you’re tired
That being said, Owen also notes that if you feel like you need to rest, then rest. “If you’re already tired and feeling rundown, you would be better of getting the rest you need so you can recharge and give more effort at your next workout.”
27. Curb the amount of cortisol you’re getting so you can sleep
“This is a big deal at the moment,” says Owen. “When you’re under stress and / or you’re not getting enough sleep, the stress hormone cortisol is elevated and this can hinder weight loss. When you’re tired, you’re also more likely to eat more. Studies show people consume up to 25 per cent more calories when they’re tired.” This also leads you to crave a quick energy fix, she adds. “This usually comes in the form of sugary snacks and drinks or processed foods.”
Dr Ezzat says we need to aim for at least seven to eight hours’ of sleep per night.
28. Make the distinction between hunger and boredom
El Sabbagh says it’s important to know the difference between when you’re hungry and when you’re bored. “Some of the food triggers while staying at home could be boredom, emotion or even habitual,” she explains. For example, if something is bothering us we might “stress eat” or whenever we watch TV we might have a snack. “It’s important to ask ourselves every time we walk into the kitchen for a snack: Am I hungry or am I eating this out of boredom / stress / habit?” If you realise you’re not actually hungry, then it’s key to distract yourself, she adds. “Try a new TV series or, better yet, do something with your hands. Some people take up knitting, reading, painting, drawing or doing a puzzle. Anything to keep the hangs and mind occupied instead of eating out of boredom.”
29. If in doubt, start with a glass of water
Nucho suggests that, before you start snacking unnecessarily, you have a glass of water. If you can’t decide whether you’re actually hungry or bored, it might just be that you’re thirsty. For some people, the feeling of thirst can be mistaken for hunger, and could make you want to reach for a sweet or salty snack, which in turn will make you thirstier. And thus, a vicious cycle emerges.
30. Check you don’t have an underlying health condition
No matter what you do, maybe the number on the scales just keeps getting higher. Owen says: "It's worth noting that there could be other underlying conditions, including hormonal imbalances, which can hinder weight loss. So, if you suspect this, it might be a good idea to seek out a healthcare practitioner who deals with this, such as your physician, a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine doctor."
31. And, most importantly, take it one day at a time…
Martins stresses that amid the current crisis it’s important to focus on the present. “Some days you will feel better than others, but don’t stress and keep calm, even if some days you feel like you ‘don’t want to do anything’. Try to motivate yourself and think about how it will be much harder to deal with after, if you end up with unwanted extra weight.” As long as you motivate yourself to maintain the weight you currently have, then you’re doing well, she adds. “Relax and keep active.”