Staying Gluten-Free and Healthy during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Vegetables in a net bag.COVID-19 has catapulted us into a new reality that has challenged how we select, access, prepare and eat our food.

You may find yourself building healthy new habits during this pandemic. Or you may relate to some of the situations below:

  • Are you moving through the day without a schedule and eating at odd hours? Snacking more often? Grazing on whatever may be visible as you pass the kitchen? Perhaps you are choosing foods you may have resisted in the past?
  • Are you moving less during the day?
  • Are economic challenges making it difficult to access food and, specifically, gluten-free food in the grocery stores?

If any of these issues resonate with you, you are not alone. Sheltering in place (and any combination of working or not working, caring for family members, teaching children at home, etc.) may have shifted how you plan and organize your time. Lack of structure in one’s day can sometimes lead to poor food choices and/or overeating. In addition, people reach for comfort foods when emotions are high.

All of these changes can impact our nutrition and wellness during this difficult time.

So, besides social distancing, handwashing, cleaning and disinfecting, what are some other simple steps we can take to avoid some of the pitfalls above and stay healthy during this crisis and beyond?

  • First and foremost, maintaining a strict gluten-free diet is the very foundation of health in celiac disease. Thankfully, much of the food we eat is naturally gluten-free. Learn more about Healthy Eating on the Gluten-Free Diet. Learn more about ways to optimize healthy eating and your lifestyle.
  • As best you can, try for a healthy gluten-free diet. Good nutrition reduces excess inflammation in the body and puts us in a better place to fight off infections. Load up on your antioxidants with fruits and vegetables. In case you are wondering, canned food is a reasonable choice – it is often as nutritious as fresh or frozen and is affordable, convenient and always “in season.” Choose canned foods with lower sodium options; draining and rinsing canned food reduces sodium by up to 41%. Choose canned fruits in 100% juice or no added sugar and drain them to reduce the sugar content further. Learn more.
  • Storing fresh fruits and vegetables effectively can ensure they last longer and taste better:
  • Legumes (think dried or canned lentils, beans and peas, and chick peas) are inexpensive, shelf-stable, and packed with nutrition. Enjoy homemade lentil or bean soups. Toss cooked chick peas into salads or soups. Random grains of wheat, barley and rye have been found in packages of legumes labeled gluten-free and well as those not labeled gluten-free. Pour dried legumes onto a cookie sheet to look for possible gluten-containing grains; rinse and drain well. Rinse and drain all canned legumes and remember to pick through your lentils for wheat and barley.
  • Check out our Spring Newsletter Recipes chosen for their shelf-stable ingredients commonly found in a kitchen pantry
  • The Resourceful Cook’s Helpers: Pull out that crock pot, rice cooker, pressure cooker and air fryer. Crock pots/slow cookers and pressure cookers were put on this earth to turn random combinations of vegetables and protein into soups and stews – among many other purposes – for little cost. A rice cooker automatically cooks until all the water is absorbed by the grain and then switches itself over to a “warming mode” until you’re ready to serve your food. Rice cookers will also cook the other labeled gluten-free grains and pseudo-grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, teff and sorghum. My pressure cooker is my new best friend – I use it now more than ever - mainly when I need to fix a hearty cooked meal in record time. Like the crock pot, I have leftovers for several days. A colleague of mine uses her air fryer regularly to make home-baked sweet potato “fries” and 1,000 other dishes you can find easily online.
  • Schedule meal and snack times to give yourself more structure during the day. Set your cooking appliance timer to finish cooking at lunch or dinner time. Plan your snack times and look forward to them as special breaks.
  • Food Assistance: Access to gluten-free food can be difficult during this challenging time – both for economic reasons and possibly due to less access to gluten-free foods in grocery stores. Individuals in need of food assistance can contact the Gluten-Free Food Bank, a division of the National Celiac Association.
    • Temporary FDA Food Labeling Policy During COVID: Read the FDA’s policy on allowing certain temporary and minor ingredient changes in foods without requiring label changes.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drink water throughout the day. Don’t wait until you are thirsty – at that point you are already dehydrated. As a general rule, aim for 6 (8 oz.) glasses of water per day. Your own water needs vary based on many factors – the amount of fiber you eat, your exercise level, your weight, your medical conditions, medications and supplements, and the climate, to name a few. So, if you feel you need more than 6 glasses per day, drink more!
  • Keep Moving and Get Outside: While you’re at home, you may be sitting more often and for longer periods. Use free time to exercise, with a buddy, if possible. Do some stretches at your desk in between meetings. Get up, move around, and go up and down stairs. Check out YouTube for quick workouts. Get outdoors whenever you can to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine.
  • Get adequate sleep: Shorter time asleep increases the risk of infectious illness. Make time to rest and sleep. Set up a consistent sleep/wake schedule which will regulate your circadian rhythm leading to more restful sleep. Extra bonus – it will also help regulate appetite and mood.
  • Manage Stress: Psychological stress disrupts our immune system. Meditation and guided relaxation can have both physical and emotional benefits. Both can decrease the body’s response to stress, such as by lowering blood pressure or improving digestion, and can help to calm busy or worried thinking. When practiced regularly, these exercises can become powerful tools to manage stress and improve brain-gut communication (which, for many people, can be negatively impacted by chronic stress).

Take advantage of all the mindfulness techniques we have available to us, such as meditation, breathing exercises, and guided imagery. Here are a few apps recommended by BIDMC’s GI Health Psychologist, Dr. Sarah Ballou:

  • Headspace app (paid subscription)
  • Insight Timer (free)
  • Calm (paid subscription)
  • Breathe2Relax (free)

Boost your health now actively trying to manage your stress. Options include journaling, connecting with others, listening to music, laughing, playing with your pet, exercising, anything that relaxes you and makes you happy.

A Word about Vitamins, Minerals and other Supplements:

There are currently no supplements, probiotics, medications, or over-the-counter products known specifically to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19 infections. Avoid any supplements making health claims to do so. Supplement needs should be tailored to the individual. Avoid taking large doses of any one supplement unless it has been prescribed by your clinician for a specific purpose. Do not use supplements as a substitute for eating a healthy diet.  We, the clinicians of the Celiac Center at BIDMC encourage you to talk to a healthcare professional if you have questions or to discuss vitamins and mineral supplements and amounts that may be appropriate for YOU now and going forward. We base our patients’ need for vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin  D, B vitamins, zinc and others on their diet and recent blood levels and we select multivitamin/mineral supplements for our patients on an individual basis, as needed. As always, make sure any supplements you buy are labeled gluten-free. 

Stay Connected

Please follow up regularly with your celiac healthcare providers. Do not hesitate to contact your gastroenterologist and/or primary care doctor if you are experiencing symptoms or have questions about your medical care.

Speak with a registered dietitian skilled in celiac disease who will help you plan healthy meals and snacks that fit your particular needs, condition, and/or symptoms.

We encourage you to take good care of your body and mind during this difficult time. Stay well and we look forward to visiting with you through telehealth and in person in better times ahead!

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