Updated: Jul 29
With restaurants closed, grocery store options diminishing, and tens of millions now unemployed, food has been on a lot of our minds.
On the bright side, this quarantine is an opportunity to expand our recipe repertoire, nourish ourselves to our own standards, figure out the root cause of our ailments, and regain our energy levels.
On the dark side, quarantine poses new challenges and worries for many--how will I afford my groceries? How can I eat well, feed my family, and save money? At worst, discipline can fly out the window on days when we succumb to sweets, snacks, and takeout. In stressful, isolating times, it's not always easy to make the right choices.
But it doesn't have to be difficult, either. Here are some tips that have helped me eat healthier and feel better than I ever have before, with the recognition that everyone's diets are different.
How to personalize your diet for your physiology
1. Start a health journal.
Stress and diet are major drivers of inflammation. Start keeping track of what you eat and how you feel afterwards in terms of energy levels, mood, and feelings. Note any changes in your symptoms, such as skin breakouts, acid reflux, or the overwhelming urge to take a nap.
Food combinations matter. Complex grains paired with meat can drain a person's energy. Things like fried meat sandwiches, turkey meatballs with breadcrumbs, and kale soup with shrimp alfredo: just don't do it. Equipped with self-science data, it becomes easier to instantly make positive choices.
Got acne, hives, atopic dermatitis, rash, or eczema? Diet is a major determinant of skin glowiness and texture. Processed meats, like salami and sausage, flour, sugar, and dairy may wreak havoc on your skin.
When keeping a health journal, it can be useful to collect information on:
Accountability and tracking
Meal plans / recipes
Personal care interventions
Sleep quality and duration
Time you went to sleep / woke up
Time you ate each meal or snack
What you ate and drank
How much you ate and drank
Hunger / satiety levels
Your mood, how you feel today
Picture of your meal
Activity levels - frequency and types of exercise
Mental health / stress
Sensations or pain level
Cravings / thoughts on food
Quality (Bristol stool scale rating) and frequency of bowel movements
If you want a simple, templated journal with a paper experience, A Gutsy Girl has a journal complete with hydration, Bristol Stool Scale explanations, and daily motivational quotes.
Alternatively, you could track your food in an app. If you have FitBit or an Apple Watch, you can also track your food there. These apps usually calculate your macros, calories, and nutrient intake.
2. Get your poop tested.
You read that right. If you're tired of the guesswork involved in which foods are friendly with your system and which downward spiral you into food-drunkenness, you can send a poop sample to scientists. That's what I did with Viome.
Viome has a gut microbiome test that uses your fecal microbiota profile as well as microbial gene expression to analyze the foods most suitable for your body. Last time I checked, the price was $149.
Without Viome, I would have never known that kale, black beans, bone broth, radicchio, and sauerkraut were among my superfoods, that lobster and kombucha stress out my system, or that I should minimize mango and spinach consumption. I love how discerning it is with different foods, and it's even inspired me to experiment with new recipes.
Just don't come after me if you find out about more than you wanted to know about the eukaryotes in your gut or discover some unexpected, stealthy parasites. Consider this an opportunity to detox, armed with your personal data.
A tip: Gut microbiota profiles change day-to-day, so it may mostly be useful if you're on a consistent diet. If you want this test to be maximally helpful to you and worth your money, don't go eat something anomalous and send a strange sample for science.
3. Try an elimination diet.
An elimination diet is temporary. If you feel like the foods you've been eating are overloading your system and you're trying to reset your diet, this may help.
My health goal wasn't about weight at all, but about revitalizing my internal organs, specifically my gut, kidneys, and liver. Five out of the 11 "Foods to Avoid" in my Viome chart were meats. The kidneys can be stressed out by high-purine diets, which can cause uric acid production, a process that can eventually lead to gout. Another 3 of the foods were melons--watermelon, canteloupe, honeydew--which I found out can carry viruses. Not something I particularly want during a pandemic...
Doing this diet became dramatically easier armed with my Viome data. I knew which veggies, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, and meats were doing me more harm than good.
An elimination diet consists of reliably low-stress foods that will help you reset your system. For me, it was things like bananas, arugula, cara cara oranges, garlic, cherries, mushrooms, homemade soup, asparagus, avocados, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, spirulina, and moringa leaf. Wherever reasonable, I ate organic. After about 3 days, my appetite and my symptoms would equilibrate and I would gradually, one by one, add back in things like milk, eggs, whole grains, and fish.
My quarantine diet
These days, I'm finding that my activity and appetite are lower. My current diet is best classified as semi-vegetarian.
My breakfasts are vegan and rotate between sauteed mushroom salads, steel-cut oats, and smoothies. Every 3-4 days, I'll have an egg or two with breakfast.
I sometimes cook with chicken or beef broth. I eat steak about once a week and fish about 2-5 times a month. I rarely eat pork, chicken, or turkey.
I eat a cara cara orange (vitamin C!) for a snack and a cookie for dessert. Sometimes I'll have a bit of ice cream.
Water is my drink of choice, but I average one drink a week, usually wine or Angry Orchard.
Most days, I don't even notice I've skipped the meat. The less I eat it, the less I crave it. This is kind of shocking, as someone who used to eat 14 eggs a week and meat every day. It's funny how much easier the choice to curb my meat consumption became after I had personalized health data to wave a red flag and help me back up my diet changes.
I've been eating this way for about 6 weeks. Despite this, my weight has stayed generally the same (3 pounds down), likely because of the muscle maintenance associated with lifting 3 times a week. Walking every morning helps me calibrate my metabolism, and dancing several times a week is my favorite form of cardio. I have no new breakouts, my mood and energy is higher, and I haven't noticed any change in my ability to focus. If I notice I'm starting to feel foggy or lethargic, I'll add some more animal proteins. But right now, I feel great.
Although social isolation can be lonely, we can use this time to figure out what works best for us and transform our health to new heights. Once we've achieved this, we can pave the way for our families, friends, and clients who may be in a similar boat.