Therese Metherell’s diet changed over the past year in a way that’s true for most people.
She’s eating out less and replacing those calories with more home-cooked meals. That’s easy on the pocketbook, but it’s generally a boon for her health, too. Metherell, a dietitian, knows all about it.
“I worked in restaurants for 15 years,” she said. “You can eat the same fish, brown rice and veggies at dinner out, and it’s going to have much more hidden fats and saturated fats. It’s way better to cook at home. You know what the ingredients are. You know where it’s been sourced from a lot of the time.”
Therein is one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s unlikely benefits for human health: People are cooking from scratch more often, and inadvertently eating better.
“A lot more people gardened, they shopped at the farmers markets, they got food shares — and then they cooked at home,” Metherell said. “That’s great, in a lot of ways.”
By and large, the more-cloistered life throughout the pandemic has had negative effects on our health, both physically and mentally. Stress levels, depression and anxiety were up. People slept more poorly. They socialized less and felt lonelier. Job losses and deaths of friends and families compounded the turmoil.
“I think COVID has been incredibly stressful for all of us,” St. John’s Health Wellness Center Director Michelle Huntzinger said. “There’s some fear associated with COVID, and health concerns and feeling isolated. It’s tough for people. We’ve had routines that have been disrupted because we’ve all had to be very cautious.”
Yet there have been silver linings, even if those are as simple as introspection about what makes us happy.
“A good thing that has come out of this, in a way, is realizing how much we need those connections to other people,” said Martha Lewis, a consultant with Jackson-based Complete Sleep Solutions. “And how not being so busy all the time, it’s actually a good thing.”
The COVID-19 era has damaged sleep cycles for the most part, which is leading to people’s bodies breaking down. Lewis monitors a lot of Facebook groups about sleeping-related issues, and she says this effect has been clear.
“Definitely, people’s insomnia has gotten worse,” she said. “The stress component is a big part of it. But I also look at what’s going on in the body that causes insomnia, things like hormones, the gut, food sensitivities. There’s such a connection because stress has these physical effects on the body. So even if something starts off mental — like, worrying, anxiety, stress — it’s going to become physical, at some point.”
Lewis doesn’t have many cookie-cutter recommendations for people dealing with stress-induced insomnia. The supplements and life changes she advises vary for every client, though there are strategies she’s quick to recommend.
“Meditation, gratitude and just staying positive are going to reduce stress in general,” she said. “And they’ll help us have a better experience, even with this pandemic going on.”
At the Wellness Center, Huntzinger recommends a number of strategies she puts into the category of “lifestyle medicine”: sleeping well, exercising, reducing toxic substances and using mindfulness techniques like prayer or meditation. Maintaining good nutrition is another.
Metherell would like to see the trend she’s noted of more home cooking and healthier eating continue past COVID times. Perhaps that life skill and lifestyle habit will even get passed along.
“Hopefully, kids are learning to cook,” Metherell said. “For generations, people have not been cooking very much. We’ve all taken to eating out.”
Maybe because of COVID, that’ll change.
“It’s way better to cook at home. You know what the ingredients are.” — Therese Metherell Dietitian