Oct. 29, 2020 -- The company that makes snacks like Oreos and Ritz Crackers is having a very good year. Sales in North America have leapt more than 16% over 2019. And there’s one big reason: When we started to go into lockdown, Americans stocked up on comfort food.

Coronavirus in Context: Tips to Eat Healthier During the PandemicWebMD's Chief Medical Officer, John Whyte, speaks with Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University, about tips to eat healthier during the pandemic.471


JOHN WHYTE: Hi, everyone.

I'm John Whyte, Chief Medical

Officer at WebMD.

And you're watching Coronavirus

in Context.

Has your eating habits changed

over the last few months?

To talk about this concept

of pandemic eating,

I've asked Dr. Drew Ramsey,

an Assistant Clinical Professor

of Psychiatry

at Columbia University,

to join me today.

Dr. Ramsey, thanks for taking

time to talk.

DREW RAMSEY: Dr. Whyte, it's

such a-- it's a treat to talk

with you, sir.

I look forward

to-- to our conversation.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, sometimes,

you're referred to

as a nutritional psychiatrist.

I haven't heard that term


What does that mean?

DREW RAMSEY: Uh, well, it means

I'm a psychiatrist,

and I-- and I'm

interested in food

as part of what I think about,

in terms of both the treatment

of psychiatric disorders

but also the prevention.

And that-- part of what

nutritional psychiatry also does

is really pushes

the conversation

around mental health,

around-- in the context of food,


which is something that, you

know, everyone's always thinking


And we often relate how we feel

to what we eat.

But we don't sometimes

do as much as we need

to to really think about how

mental health, uh, is really

brain health

and how-- there's so much

that we know about how to feed

the brain.

And that's not how a lot

of folks are eating.


Well let's talk about what's

happening during this pandemic.

Um, you know, sometimes, we hear

about the coronavirus 15--

people gaining weight.

We saw that on a survey

at WebMD.

You know, people are eating

more, obviously,

inside the house than outside.

Walk us through-- what are some

of these key elements

of this pandemic eating,

and what are you concerned


DREW RAMSEY: Well, I would say

the COVID 15 is one

of those things

that we like to talk about

but-- but I don't think

happened, to be quite honest.

I think what happened

is that people were inside

during winter--

during an incredible stressful


They maybe ate a little bit


I suspect, like, a lot of people

who gained those pounds,

most people are losing them now.

I am.

And so I think it's one

of those--

JOHN WHYTE: We're all not losing



DREW RAMSEY: OK, well, I think

you're going to this summer.

By the end of this session,

John, we're going to take care

of those for you.


DREW RAMSEY: But I think what's

happened is there have been

a couple of phases of this--

there is

an initial pandemic response

is for quarantine

for the first time in history

for any American.

It really shifted how we ate.

For the first time,

a lot of people really faced

what so many millions

of Americans

struggle with all the time,

which is food insecurity.

Is there going to be the foods

that I like

or enough food for me

and my family at the grocery


For the first time, people were

stocking up.

This also led

to the healthiest thing that's

happened to Americans, in terms

of nutrition, in decades--

since I've been a physician,

which is everyone

was eating at home.

And if you think

about the number one move

that we want patients to do more

of it's cooking at home to take

care of themselves

and take care

of their nutrition.

When we cook at home, especially

when we start pushing more

plants, um, it's just phenomenal

for our health.

And so that happened.

And I think that's a little


The next thing that happened,

of course, is everyone started--

a lot of reports of people

drinking more and more alcohol,


Just as people are dealing

with stress, alcohol is one

of those coping mechanisms

that many people lean into.

And I also think that's faded.

You know, there was

an initial kind of, wow.

And now, this is our reality.

Drinking isn't a healthy coping

mechanism long-term term.


JOHN WHYTE: You talked about

maybe sales have increased

for alcohol.

But that's because people aren't

necessarily going out.

DREW RAMSEY: Yeah, there are

a lot of these stat--

JOHN WHYTE: Total consumption

might not have increased.

Is that-- is that accurate?

DREW RAMSEY: Yeah-- there has

been a lot of reports

and speculation.

Certainly, we know there's been

more depression, more anxiety,

more suicidal thoughts.

But in terms of more alcohol

consumption, of course

alcohol sales went up.

No one can go to a bar

and drink outside anymore

or drink out of their home


And so, you know, some

of these statistics that we see

I think we need to question.

Certainly, people were drinking

more, from what I saw clinically

in my practice.

I also think that people really

shifted from those behaviors.

Same thing with eating--

I mean, there is certainly

a fatigue.

But a lot of people,

you know, especially folks who

are oriented towards trying

to eat a little more healthily,

those habits have, I think

for a lot of folks, come back

or getting pushed now,

as people--

they're not going to let

this virus really totally derail

their health.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, stress

and anxiety obviously have

a role on appetite.

And we've talked

about those persons who, when

they're stressed and anxious,

eat more.

But there is also a group

of people who, when they face

trauma, when they get anxious,

they eat less.

And we've been hearing

from a lot of people

who, with the George Floyd

killing and the protest,

they feel stressed.

Some of them

feel traumatized and talk

about they can't even eat.

Their stomach feels sick.

What's going on there?

And how do we address it?

DREW RAMSEY: Well, collectively,

we were sitting with the trauma

of losing our context--

losing life as we knew it-- very

rapidly because of the COVID


And then on top of this,

we have just an absolutely

tragic and horrible event

of George Floyd

and many other Black Americans

being killed, often at the hands

of the police but really

in a lot of other contexts.

And so the Black Lives Matter

movement caused an uprising--

a wonderful uprising that we

need in our country.

But with that

and with that collective trauma,

there's just a huge shift--

a lot of people just feeling

really upset--

really upset about the state

of our country,

really upset about just how much


there is,


about the hard conversations.

These aren't easy conversations

to have with--

one of our neighbors

has a big Confederate flag up.

I know the right thing to do

is to go ask him about it-- not

in a defensive way

but in a way to create

a dialogue with my neighbor

to understand who he or she is.

I haven't done that yet.

Thinking about that--

I don't know, it doesn't do

good things for appetite.

And so it's where--

and, John, it's really important

to highlight for people.

This is where getting

some compartmentalization

around your self-care

is very important right now.

And you and I, as physicians--

most folks who are actually

in health care-- know that.

That way that you got to walk

from the ER to the cafeteria.

And you maybe saw something

horrible moments ago,

And you have to take

a deep breath, get your lunch,

and get back to work.

And so that kind of advice,

I think, fits in some ways

that certainly, we shouldn't

ignore what's going on.

There are moments where

if you're feeling nauseous

and not like eating

and you haven't eaten, what's

the easiest thing you can

you put down?

Can you get a healthy smoothie

in there?

Can you get some protein

or maybe some scrambled eggs

or baked potato?

Really simple, digestible fuel--

that, that, that's just

absolutely key.

Especially all

those hard conversations require

a lot of brainpower and presence

and sitting with hard feelings.

And we don't do that well when

we're undernourished

or we're living on lots of carbs

and lots of alcohol

and not a lot of sleep.

And so it's just where self-care

is so key for us finding our way


It's really

important for all health care

providers to really take care

of ourselves--

give your, give your body

and your brain the good stuff--

the good fuel.

Make sure, and as John suggests,

get a little bit more sleep.

JOHN WHYTE: Dr. Ramsey, I want

to thank you for taking time


to shed some insights

about this concept

of pandemic nutrition

and how we really can make

that connection of food

to our bodies, particularly

our brains.

DREW RAMSEY: And Dr. Whyte,

thank you so much.

It's really a treat to talk

with you-- to talk

about the importance

of nutrition during this time.

And I look forward to talking

with you again soon.


John Whyte, MD, MPH. Chief Medical Officer, WebMD, <br>Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University/delivery/aws/b4/d6/b4d65724-c083-3930-8221-27816084523b/Ramsey_pt1_062620_,4500k,2500k,1000k,750k,400k,.mp407/06/2020 12:39:0018001200Ramsey_pt1_062620_1800x1200/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/covid19-images/Ramsey_pt1_062620_1800x1200.jpg091e9c5e81f5720f

Why not? We thought it would be a matter of weeks. Seven months on, that includes some extra pounds for many of us. A survey done for Nutrisystem found that 76% of Americans have gained weight, as much as 16 pounds between March and July. Another survey, done in August by RunRepeat, found that 41% of the 10,000+ respondents in the U.S. had gained more than 5 pounds since quarantine began -- and those are people visiting a website devoted to running.

“Back then it was a shock to the system, the challenge of staying home,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “Now we’re seeing people struggling with stress, boredom, and the inability to focus on making a lifestyle change when there are so many other things going on.”

So, does that mean we should just keep going the way we have been? Not so fast, says Kirkpatrick: “Some people are changing the narrative, looking at this as an opportunity.” Not going to the workplace means there’s no long commute, which makes space for exercising and cooking healthy meals. “While about half of my patients are saying this is the worst thing ever, the other half say, ‘There’s so much I can’t control, I’ll control making a true lifestyle change.’ They’ve finally got the time to do it,” she says.

Such was the case for Dianne Simmons of Frederick, MD, who has lost 40 pounds on WW (formerly Weight Watchers) during the pandemic. “COVID made me look differently at how there are some things I can control, and some I have no control over whatsoever,” she says. “I think I needed something to focus on that allowed me little victories going along. It makes 2020 feel a bit less dire.”

How to Lose Weight in Quarantine

Kirkpatrick says there’s not a single “pandemic diet” that will help shed those pounds. But she does offer some suggestions -- including specific ways of eating -- that take into account the times we’re living in. Complicated diets that require extensive shopping and meal prep may be too difficult or stressful to tackle right now.

To start, all the usual weight loss advice still applies: Focus on healthy eating, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep. But given the realities of pandemic life, that may not be enough. Here’s what Kirkpatrick suggests:

  • Take baby steps. We’re all stressed right now, so trying to overhaul your lifestyle completely might be asking too much of yourself. Instead, start with one small step. “What’s something you can change right now?” says Kirkpatrick. “It’s too hard to make five different changes when you can just pick one to start.” For many of her patients, that means experimenting with intermittent fasting, in which you eat only during a set number of hours each day. (More on that below.)
  • Embrace semi-homemade. Yes, you have more time to cook. But if you just don’t have the mental energy to choose recipes and shop for specific ingredients, stock your kitchen with ready-to-use items that are easy to transform into a nutritious meal. “Now isn’t the time to become a grand chef,” says Kirkpatrick. “Learn to be a great short-order cook.” Frozen chicken breast + frozen broccoli + a pouch of pre-cooked quinoa or brown rice = dinner.
  • Eat on a schedule. Working from home means you’ve got food accessible 24/7, and your days probably have less structure than they used to. Plan when you’ll take a coffee break and eat lunch, and stick to it.
  • Consider intermittent fasting. “Even a Mediterranean or low-carb diet takes planning, and most of my patients can’t wrap their heads around that right now,” says Kirkpatrick. Intermittent fasting limits your eating to a set window of hours each day. The idea isn’t to gorge on cookies during those hours -- you should still aim for healthy meals and snacks -- but you don’t have to count calories or nutrients. Simply by not eating early in the morning and late at night, you’ll probably find you’re eating less. Pre-pandemic, Rachel Kahan of Brooklyn, NY, was doing a 12-hour intermittent fast, largely because her commute required eating breakfast early and dinner late. In lockdown, her family ate breakfast later in the morning and had dinner earlier in the evening, which left her with a 10-hour window for eating. She’s lost 5 pounds, and her husband has lost 10.
  • Or maybe go vegan. Many of Kirkpatrick’s patients have adopted a vegan lifestyle during the pandemic, which they hope will be better for their immune systems. Experts say a plant-based diet supports your immune system. “It’s transformed how they eat,” she says. “A lot have lost weight without that being the goal.”
  • Lock the liquor cabinet. Not only does alcohol provide excess calories, it also takes away your ability to regulate your food intake, Kirkpatrick says. “If you start drinking while you’re cooking, you stop caring about what you’re eating.” You don’t have to give up alcohol entirely, but drink more consciously.
  • Start the day ready to play. Get dressed every day, but skip the comfy sweats. Opt for clothing that encourages you to move. “Loungewear doesn’t foster physical activity,” says Kirkpatrick. “Whatever clothes make you more likely to go for a walk, choose that.”
  • Use your commute time for exercise. Now that you don’t have to leave home by 8, you can spend that time moving your body. “The intensity of your workout doesn’t have to change, but you might have 90 minutes now, instead of 45 minutes during your lunch break on the job,” says Kirkpatrick.

Get Help Losing Weight

If the DIY approach doesn’t feel right to you, virtual help is right at your fingertips. To decide what kind of plan will work best for you, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What’s realistic in your current environment? A young person quarantining with roommates probably can’t ask everyone else to adopt the same approach to eating, but you can be honest with them and ask for their support. A parent with small children, on the other hand, has more control over what food comes into the house -- but less time to focus on your own needs, so a health-oriented meal-delivery program might do the trick. And a senior living alone might want the sociability and group support of a plan like WW.
  • What kind of communication do you prefer? If you’re just looking for structure and guidance, a tracking app or website might do the trick. For structure as well as support from others, a formal weight loss program could be a good fit. Or if you’d prefer a one-on-one approach, opt for Zoom sessions with a dietitian.
  • How much support do you need? Maybe you already understand what changes you need to make, but don’t have people in your life who’ll support you. Thanks to the pandemic, neighborhood groups have sprung up on sites like Facebook and Nextdoor. “People share ideas about what to make for dinner, or say, ‘Hey, I’m going for a socially distanced walk at noon. Who wants to join?’” says Kirkpatrick. “They’re supporting one another, and they don’t necessarily have to see each other.”

When it comes to measuring your progress, Kirkpatrick says you can aim for one-half to one pound a week -- but in terms of your overall health, keeping track of your waist measurement might be the better bet. Studies have shown that central obesity (carrying more weight around your middle) has a higher risk of chronic illness and death.

“Waist size also matters because central obesity is more inflammatory, which may have a worse effect on COVID compared to someone who is holding weight in the butt or thigh area,” Kirkpatrick says. “This is the time to focus on accurate, measurable indicators for health, and studies show that waist is a better predictor.”

WebMD Health News


Mondelēz International: “Mondelēz International Reports Q2 2020 Results.”

SWNS Digital: “Americans have gained up to 16 pounds while quarantining.”

Nick Rizzo, fitness research director, RunRepeat.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, registered dietitian, Cleveland Clinic.

Dianne Simmons, Frederick, MD.

Rachel Kahan, Brooklyn, NY.

The BMJ: “Central fatness and risk of all cause mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of 72 prospective cohort studies.”

MD Anderson: “5 benefits of a plant-based diet.”

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