How to stay healthy and lose a couple of kilos in lockdown

Mindful eating and exercise can help keep your body and mind in good shape.
Mindful eating and exercise can help keep your body and mind in good shape. Photo: iStock

While many of us may have started lockdown with good intentions, being cooped up can eventually lead to a feeling of irritability and boredom creeping up.

"Inevitably, this is causing many of us to turn to comfort eating," says registered dietitian Helen Bond.

"Mindless eating and drinking is the biggest lockdown pitfall, especially as the weeks go on."

It's all too easily done. You're now only ever a few steps away from the kitchen, after all, and if things aren't going right at work, a 3pm KitKat feels all but necessary. Follow that up with a 6pm glass of red, and it's easy to see how a few kilograms might creep up on you. 

"Before this, I rarely drank in the week," Bond admits, "but even I've had wine on a Tuesday while cooking dinner."

A simple salad with vegetables and protein is an easy healthy feed.
A simple salad with vegetables and protein is an easy healthy feed. Photo: William Meppem

I have one friend who has been so stressed juggling her busy job in IT with home schooling, she's started eating one of her three children's Easter eggs for lunch each day. "I feel awful, but it's become a habit," she says.

Another bad habit is grazing from 3pm onwards. "When I was in the office, I was busy, and never had snacks between meals," said another. "But I'm furloughed and picking at food because I'm bored, and my husband and I are opening a bottle of wine most evenings."

But there are very real risks of being overweight in the time of COVID-19. Scientists at Edinburgh, Liverpool and Imperial College London universities found a link between excess weight and developing more severe symptoms of coronavirus and being hospitalised.

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In lockdown, our energy needs have changed. Before lockdown, the average woman needed about 8500 kilojoules per day and the average man about 10,500, Bond says. "But if you're quite sedentary, you can probably knock a couple of hundred off that figure."

Yet being cooped up with only the garden for fresh air, "combined with the lovely weather, has given this strange time a holiday feel", Bond says. "But there's a stress that hangs over it, which is causing many of us to eat and drink even more than usual. However, alcohol is second only to fat in terms of energy value, and leads to what I call the 'lockdown nibbles'."

Alcohol weakens our resolve around food and disrupts sleep, which can lead to cravings. Getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night causes levels of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger, to go up, and levels of leptin, the sense of fullness hormone, to drop.

Some of my clients who wear fitness trackers have seen their daily steps drop from 10,000 to 1000.

Lee Mullins, personal trainer

"If you drink - even moderately - every day during lockdown, you're going to end up half a stone (three kilograms) heavier by the time it's lifted," Bond says.

Therefore, she suggests we go back to our former drinking habits, "which should have been at least three days a week alcohol-free. It's understandable why people are drinking more, but alcohol is a depressant and leads to increased stress."

The same goes for eating. Despite the name, "comfort food" - high in sugar and heavily processed - only makes us feel temporarily better after the initial high from the rise in blood glucose. When that plummets, we feel lower and more tired than before.

But there is some good news: Bond says this is no time to diet. "Purely because when people do, their nutrient intake often falls, and vitamins and minerals are vital to support our immune system. But it's certainly important to eat well. Protein is the most satiating nutrient, so have a good portion with every meal because it will keep you fuller for longer. And ensure no more than a third of your meal is carbohydrate."

In Britain, the government promotes a 400:600:600 campaign. "Have a 400-calorie (1700 kilojoule) breakfast, a 600-calorie lunch and a 600-calorie dinner, eating across all the food groups, with a couple of healthy snacks thrown in," Bond says. "Do that and if you're a healthy weight, it'll remain steady. And if you're carrying excess weight, you'll lose it."

In terms of meals, Bond advises simplicity. Roast cherry tomatoes or scrambled eggs on toast, or salads containing leafy green and colourful vegetables, a little fat (avocado and olive oil), a portion of protein (salmon, chickpeas, goats' cheese) and a portion of carbohydrate (brown rice). "Or turn tinned pulses and beans into stews or curries," she says.

Incidental exercise, says personal trainer Lee Mullins, is also key. One of the biggest contributors to our daily energy output is "non-exercise activity thermogenesis" or NEAT, he says. "In other words, the incidental exercise we do while commuting, walking to [the cafe] back at lunchtime or going from desk to desk."

Since lockdown, our NEAT has plummeted. "Some of my clients who wear fitness trackers have seen their daily steps drop from 10,000 to 1000," he says. "So don't stay rooted to your kitchen table and laptop. Keep moving. If you have stairs, go up and down them often."

Like Bond, Mullins says the lockdown can send you one of two ways: "You can either see it as a time to drink wine every night and become more sedentary. Or as a good time to develop a few new habits and emerge from it fitter and healthier than before."

The Telegraph, London