Changing the Focus of "Healthy" Eating in the Age of Coronavirus

mom and daughter grocery shopping during COVID-19 pandemic

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Key Takeaways

  • An estimated 18 million Americans are at risk of hunger, including 1 in 4 children since the start of the pandemic.
  • Given the drastic impact COVID-19 has had on Americans both financially and emotionally, registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) have focused their education efforts to promote balanced nutrition in easily accessible forms.
  • While whole foods are still encouraged when available, an acceptance of convenient, lower-cost foods that pack in many nutrients has also unfolded.

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in the United States last March, few people could have foreseen the drastic impact it would have on nearly every layer of life. Now a year into this "new normal," we've seen the tremendous effect COVID-19 has had on food insecurity in particular, with 1 in 4 kids now experiencing hunger.

This knowledge that 25% of US children are going to bed hungry should tell lawmakers and individuals that there is a lot of work to be done to help change the current situation.

While monetary donations to non-profits and local food banks can certainly help, there are other things we can do, individually, to help make a change, and it involves modifying perspectives on what it means to eat healthily. Let's take a closer look.

Redefining Healthy Eating

First and foremost, we need to redefine what "healthy" eating really means.

Truthfully, there is no standard definition for the general public. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only put a definition behind what "healthy" means from a legal standpoint for food manufacturers as of 2017.

This guidance put an emphasis on the types of fats found in foods (i.e. encouraging unsaturated over saturated fats to be deemed healthy) as well as meeting 10% of the daily value for potassium or vitamin D, but does not address many of the nuances we see covered in the media when it comes to the common "healthy" eating associations.

Amy Cohn, RDN

It is imperative that we continue to adjust our lens to meet people where they are at and all that they bring with be able to offer good, actionable food and nutrition recommendations.

— Amy Cohn, RDN

It's no surprise, according to Amy Cohn, registered dietitian and nutrition senior manager for the cereal operating unit at General Mills, that the term "healthy" does not have "a one-size-fits-all model." She shares that, for some, eating kale may be "healthy," while for others, eating fast food only once per week may be healthy for them. "The journey towards healthy eating is different for everyone, and no one journey is better than the other if it is helping them move forward," she said.

Cohn brings up an important point that it is imperative "we continue to adjust our lens to meet people where they are at and all that they bring with them—from their food preferences, to their cultural backgrounds, to potential budget constraints and beyond—to be able to offer good, actionable food and nutrition recommendations." 

How to Support Shifting Nutrition Perspectives

The power to help impart change is within your control, and it simply begins with taking action. Here's how you can be part of the solution.

Evaluate Your Messaging

It's no surprise that the messaging we share with our family and peers, whether through social media or conversations, has power. One of the easiest things that we can all do is reevaluate the messaging we personally are sharing around "healthy eating."

Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, a retired nutrition professor at Georgia State University and the operator of Chris Rosenbloom Food & Nutrition Services, shares that "social media glamorizes food and meal photos, which can make people feel bad about their food choices. Good nutrition isn't good if it isn't realistic, affordable, enjoyable, and eaten."

While Rosenbloom is not suggesting people give up on trying to eat healthier, she is suggesting we check-in with ourselves and the messaging we are sharing regarding "healthy" eating. She's not wrong.

Research from Nutrition Today even showed that low-income shoppers felt discouraged after seeing mixed headlines regarding the safety of conventional produce. This fear and their inability to afford the organic produce led to decreased produce consumption, overall, despite the safety of conventional produce and the nutrition benefits it contains.

Nicole Rodriguez, RDN

As a dietitian and mom with experience working in areas affected by food apartheid, clearly we need to reinforce that ALL forms of produce count.

— Nicole Rodriguez, RDN

Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT, of Enjoy Food Enjoy Life, agrees with this, as well, noting that current research from the Produce For Better Health Foundation shows only one out of 10 Americans is meeting their daily intake of fruits and vegetables.

Rodriguez shares, "As a dietitian and mom with experience working in areas affected by food apartheid, clearly we need to reinforce that all forms of produce count. Whether that's opening a can of peaches or grabbing a bag of frozen vegetables at the dollar store to serve alongside an easy-to-prepare boxed meal, those count towards daily produce intakes. Even juice, which has gotten a bad rap in the past, is an excellent source of plant-derived vitamins."

Encourage A Variety of Foods that Are Nutritious, Affordable and Convenient

Whether you are on a budget or not, the past year has shown us all that when the food supply chain is disrupted due to a pandemic, you cannot always get the same fresh produce and whole foods you may typically find at your local market. When shortages happen, though, there are still countless options found throughout the aisles that can meet nutritional needs.

For instance, ready-to-eat cereal with cows' milk is an excellent way to help children and adults, alike, receive a source of whole grains, as well as seven essential vitamins and minerals, for just 50 cents a serving.

While some will knock the nutritional value of cereal, given the added sugar content of some brands, Rodriguez points out that cereal, in fact, offers solid nutrition, especially when paired with a serving of fruit, filling nutrient gaps one bowl at a time.

Plus, according to Cohn, ready-to-eat cereal sales rose by 100 million pounds this past year, going from 2.69 billion pounds in 2018-2019 to 2.79 billion pounds in 2019-2020. This alone shows that ready-to-eat cereal has found its place in helping countless families meet their nutrition needs conveniently while staying on a budget.

Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN

Good nutrition isn't good if it isn't realistic, affordable, enjoyable, and eaten.

— Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN

Rosenbloom also points out that other nutritious and convenient options, like cheese pizza, pasta and sauce, and potatoes, may get a bad rap, but are certainly a great addition to a balanced plate when paired with a fruit or vegetable (frozen, fresh, dried, or canned).

What we have to remember is that nutrition is a source of fuel for the body. In a picture perfect world, our plates would look somewhat like a rainbow at every meal, but that is just not realistic.

There are a variety of ways to meet your nutritional needs, fruits and vegetables included, that don't come from the perimeter of the store.

Focus on Small, Simple Swaps

Last but certainly not least, focusing on small changes that can realistically be incorporated for the long haul can have a powerful impact on "healthy" eating and behaviors.

For instance, healthcare practitioners can suggest minimal changes in the spirit of immune health, without making patients feel as though they need to completely overhaul their diets. Adding a serving of whatever yogurt is on sale that week, with a side of oats, is a great way to focus on feeding immune health that doesn't involve an expensive supplement or trendy brand of kraut that many cannot afford.

Rosenbloom agrees, noting, "Dietitians are really good at suggesting ways to sneak in healthful foods into everyday meals. Whether it is adding a can of drained vegetables to a plain pasta meal or making soup of leftover veggies in the bin, or adding a handful of spinach to scrambled eggs, there are so many ways we can help."

It's important to remember that every small step adds up in the big picture of health. Rodriguez is in full support of this, as well, sharing, "While the pursuit of good health is about more than simply the foods we eat, I hope that health professionals can collectively recognize that those nutritious choices don't solely exist at upper-echelon purveyors or bear certain labels such as natural or organic. 

"Now, more than ever, let's meet people where they are, whether that's a big box store, a fast-food drive-through, or as we'd call the corner store here in New York, the bodega. There are healthy options at each one."

What This Means for You

Focus on the bigger picture of what "healthy" eating entails, such as meeting nutrient needs through a wide variety of affordable and convenient food options. It's imperative that we, as a nation, stop food shaming, and instead focus on encouraging consumption of more nutritious, affordable, and convenient foods, like produce in all forms (canned, frozen, dried, or fresh.)

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Article Sources
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  1. Contellanos, D. 18 million US children are at risk of hunger: What more can be done? University of Dayton Magazine. Published February 8, 2021.

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for industry: use of the term “healthy” in the labeling of human food products. Published September 2016.

  3. Huang, Yancui; Edirisinghe, Indika; Burton-Freeman, Britt M. Low-income shoppers and fruit and vegetables. Nutrition Today. Published September 10, 2016;51(5):242-250. doi:10.1097/NT.0000000000000176

  4. Produce for Better Health Foundation. The state of the plate: new research reveals America’s fruit & vegetable consumption is eroding. Published February 23, 2021.