AUGUST 20, 2021 – Sarah Ullevig, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy, studies the effects of COVID-19, nutritional science, and the ever-evolving knowledge of how food can affect our bodies.
Ullevig’s research interests span two broad areas of nutrition-oriented research: nutrition in healthy aging and the relationship between nutrition, inflammation and oxidative stress in diet-related diseases. Her research includes studying health problems that affect older adults, including malnutrition, food security, adequate nutrition, age-related muscle loss, and supplement use.
Oxidative research is the disruption of the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defenses. This type of stress discusses its relationship to its possible role in generating tissue damage in diabetes.
UTSA Today connected with Ullevig this week to learn more about their research and how people can manage stress through diet.
How has your research changed in the face of the pandemic?
I am interested in bridging the digital divide accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic so that elderly people at risk can access diet and physical activity information and virtually connect with others.
How can diet help with stress management?
Links have been made between certain nutrients that can help with stress management, but the strongest evidence speaks in favor of a balanced, nutritious diet.
A balanced diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives that can provide us with vitamins and minerals and antioxidants to help manage stress. It is important to recognize that stress can affect our food choices.
There is evidence that stress can increase the choice of less nutritious foods with higher fat and sugar content, which can potentially lead to weight gain.
How can we be sure that we are eating right during the pandemic?
Maintaining healthy eating habits can be difficult during stressful times, especially when the stress lingers longer, like in this pandemic. Some tips that can help us all make good decisions during stressful times:
- Make small changes to include healthy foods in your diet. You don’t have to change anything about your diet; Start small and set achievable goals. Healthy foods to focus on include all kinds of fruits and vegetables. The best are those that you enjoy. Whole grains are another healthy choice. Look for “100% whole grain” on the product packaging. Add lean proteins like fish, poultry, lean beef, beans, and other legumes. Soy and low-fat dairy products are also good options.
- Limit foods high in fat, sodium, alcohol, and caffeine. Treat yourself to foods you like, but keep portion sizes to a moderate intake.
- Plan ahead to facilitate healthy eating. I find planning can go a long way in increasing the likelihood of eating healthy foods. Start by creating a menu for the week to help plan what meals and snacks you will have. I find that planning at least a week will help prepare you for what you will be eating that week and you will have all of the foods you need to make healthy choices. Some tips for planning the week: Start by planning the foods and meals that you have already cooked and eaten. No need to plan gourmet meals that you’ve never cooked before, and I suggest slowly adding experimental meals to your menu. Plan for unhealthy meals and snacks. I know, for example, that my family will eat out more at the weekend and I plan to do that.
- Use healthy ready-made meals or low-prep options to save time. I sometimes don’t have a lot of time to cook and use options that can save time. For example, grocery store meal sets or meal sets are great for making sure you have all of the ingredients for a simple, healthy meal. Ready-made meals can be a great option when you are short on time and have limited access to cooking utensils. These can be frozen or chilled meals. Some of my favorites are ready-made salads (fridge), healthy burritos full of vegetables and whole grains (frozen), crustless quiches or vegetable cakes (frozen), and bowls of whole grains, beans and vegetables (fridge or frozen section). I usually combine these meals with fruits and yogurt to make a well-rounded meal that includes protein, vegetables, starches, fruits, and dairy products.
- Prepare meals and snacks in advance. During stressful and hectic times in my life, I prepare all of my meals for the week on the weekend. This way, I don’t have to worry about meal preparation during the week that I’m most busy. I also help my family prepare meals and snacks.
- Find ways to deal with stress that don’t involve food. We use food as consolation in stressful times. Acknowledging when you’re stressed out and using a non-food outlet can help. Some non-food stress management tools that can help include exercise, meditation, spending time doing things you enjoy doing, talking to friends and family, and more. Find the best for you. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if stress is negatively affecting your life.
- Be nice to yourself and celebrate small victories. Knowing that stress can affect the amount and type of food we eat, you should be aware that nobody eats perfectly all the time, and sometimes we cannot plan for all of life’s stressors. Foods with sugar and fat taste good and we can enjoy them. If your healthy eating plan didn’t work out one day, consider what adjustments could be made the next day. Tomorrow is another day to try and experiment what works for you. Often times, no adjustments are required other than to acknowledge a stressful day.