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How Balanced and Healthy Are Your Meals?

A year into the pandemic, discover if you need to do more to improve your diet

a couple eating salads

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En español | Studies in the U.S. and abroad have shown clear patterns of overeating and disordered eating (poor appetite, skipping meals). In one study nearly a third of people surveyed claimed that their eating habits became unhealthy during the pandemic. One of the main causes cited: pandemic lifestyle disrupting normal routines.

Your Post-COVID Health Checklist

health checklist illustration

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The key question

Am I getting the nutrients I need to be healthy?

Eating too many calories is a problem for just about everyone. But ensuring you're getting enough of the right protein, fiber and plant nutrients is the priority.

Test yourself: The one-week food tally

We know, keeping a food diary is a pain. But for the next seven days, write down in a notebook everything you eat and, as best you can, the primary ingredients. If you cook a pot of chili, for example, jot down the main foods that make up the recipe. (Don't worry about spices or hot sauces.) If you get a drive-through burger and fries, note those as well as add-ons like lettuce, cheese or tomatoes. And be honest: That side of broccoli doesn't matter if it doesn't wind up in your belly.

At the end of seven days, answer these questions:

  • Did I eat at least 30 different plants? That includes fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds (but exclude plant oils). If every breakfast is oatmeal and blueberries and every lunch is a turkey sandwich, you're not getting a full range of micronutrients needed for maximum body and brain health. On the other side, a bowl of well-made minestrone soup could have five to 10 different plant types, as might a creatively made green salad, fruit salad or high-quality trail mix.

    Studies show that those who eat at least 30 different plants a week have lower rates of overall mortality from all causes and have healthier, more diverse gut microbiomes. Lead researcher Daniel McDonald, Ph.D., scientific director of the American Gut program, says that every type of plant counts, so a slice of 12-grain bread counts as 12 plants, and soup with potatoes, carrots and onion counts as three.

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Empty Calories After 60

Research shows that consuming fewer calories as we get older is linked to longevity and lower disease risk. In fact, while our resting metabolic rate (the number of calories we burn while at rest) is about 1,500 calories a day at age 64, it slowly declines until about age 75; it then begins an even more rapid drop-off. So it becomes critical to eliminate junk calories from your diet and to focus on spending that increasingly small calorie allowance on foods that pack in the nutrients.

  • Did I have protein at each meal? Concentrate on breakfast, where most of us tend to fall short. Beginning your day with a quality protein ensures that you're fighting back against age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia.

  • What empty calories can I cut out? In middle age, our bodies need about 200 fewer calories a day than we do when we're younger. Chances are, your diary will show where your snack patterns are. Reaching for a handful of potato chips every day at 3 p.m.? That simple, singular habit may be all you need to address to begin stabilizing your weight.

  • When am I eating most of my calories? “An important area of study is the timing of lifestyle behaviors,” says Brooke Aggarwal, assistant professor of medical sciences in the cardiology division of the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. “We've been researching meal timing and how that affects cardiovascular risk.” One finding: A higher percentage of daily calories consumed at the evening meal was associated with higher diastolic blood pressure. And so eating earlier in the day may be related to lower cardio-metabolic risk.

In addition to your diet, the pandemic has likely disrupted your nightime routine. Your next step to a healthier you is to take a look at your sleep patterns. 

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