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The Mediterranean diet and foods rich in vitamin D, what's featured on the lockdown menu

  It is important to compensate for the lack of sunlight with vitamin D-rich foods.

Foto: Khamkhor / Unsplash

Carla Nieto
Carefully planning the shopping list and respecting meal times helps keeps vitamin deficiencies and weight gain at bay

Fruit, fermented foods or dried fruits and nuts are good energy boosters

It is important to compensate for the lack of sunlight with vitamin D-rich foods

The current state of alarm in place due to COVID-19 has brought about a radical change in our habits and everyday routines, and our nutrition is no exception. Whether it is the shopping list, which is now conditioned by availability and access, or the type of diet we need to follow, how we eat has been completely altered.

While we are confined to the home, it is important that we watch what we eat, not only to maintain a healthy body weight, but also to alleviate any possible deficiencies or negative states.

Alicia Aguilar and Anna Bach, professors at the UOC Faculty of Health Sciences and researchers with the University's FoodLab group, provide us with a list of recommendations to help us manage our daily food intake and adapt to the situation at hand:

  • The restrictions and new guidelines for food shopping make it necessary for us to shop reasonably and, above all, responsibly. We need to try to cover our nutritional needs with as few products as possible. In this sense, the Mediterranean diet truly is the best option, since it is based on foods that are easily found at the supermarket and, best of all, provide us with the ideal nutrients for a situation of confinement. As Bach said: "It's varied, balanced and rich in fruits and vegetables that you can eat raw or cooked and in combination with other foods. One of the diet's main features is that it's high in antioxidants, which are indispensable for strengthening the immune system, a main concern right now. It's important to prevent infection." She highlights certain basic items that we should have in our shopping basket, such as strawberries and oranges (both in season), leafy green vegetables (rich in beta-carotene, a key antioxidant for a healthy immune system and skin and mucous membranes), tomatoes (rich in lycopene, a strong antioxidant), pulses (fresh or packaged), cereals (preferably whole grain) or fish (oily and forage), among others.

  • When planning menus, Bach said that it is better to shop prioritizing fresh, local produce, but combining these with less perishable goods. Having things on hand in the pantry like canned goods, pulses or cereals or frozen foods will save us from having to go out unnecessarily. This echoes the recommendation that the Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition (SEEN) recently published, reminding people to limit unnecessary purchases and to avoid improvising with higher-calorie foods. They also recommend leaving out highly processed foods, despite these been less perishable.

  • One of the biggest "losses" to our bodies with confinement is reduced exposure to sunlight and the elevated risk of vitamin D deficiency this brings with it. Bach explained that this vitamin is important for the effect it has on our metabolism and our ability to absorb calcium. "To get it naturally, we need sunlight; when this hits our skin a series of metabolic processes generate vitamin D," she said.

    When this is not possible, the best option is to increase our intake of foods rich in vitamin D. Regarding the best sources of this, Aguilar said: "The best options are forage fish, even canned or in preserve, like tiny sardines, European anchovies, or tuna... There is also dairy (some are even vitamin D-enriched), or eggs. They all keep well and are usually a hit with the whole family, and you can eat them alone or in a variety of recipes, combined with other foods, which helps contribute to a more varied diet."

  • Another important thing to keep in mind is that being confined, along with the worry, feeling of uncertainty and stress the situation creates, can trigger periodic or long-term states of anxiety and sadness, which we tend to associate with cravings for comfort foods. These tend to be hypercaloric, high in sugar and with little or no nutritional value. Aguilar said: "It's important to try as best we can not to eat our emotions and look to food as a pick-me-up, which can lead to compulsive eating or a tendency towards ready-to-eat foods like snacks, chocolate, cakes, etc. These are obviously not the best choice from a nutritional standpoint."

    Ideally we should try to not even buy these types of products (or at least limit their consumption) and choose instead foods that, as Bach put it, can have a positive effect on our mood: oily fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids (associated with reducing the risk of depression); dark chocolate, which has ingredients that causes the brain to release "feel good" chemicals; or forage fish and flaxseed, which are imperative for the correct functioning of the central nervous system. Bach pointed out: "Fermented foods (kefir, yoghurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc) are highly recommendable, as they are rich in probiotics, guarantors of a healthy intestinal tract. This is very important considering that 90% of serotonin (the neurotransmitter in charge of well-being) is produced in the intestine."

    As a plan B when snacking, Bach recommended bananas, which are "a fantastic source of natural sugar, vitamin B6 and prebiotic fibre, nutrients which work together to maintain our blood sugar levels and our mood". Nuts (in moderation) and berries (whatever the type or colour, they are rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that protect the nervous system) are also great alternatives.

  • Confinement and the fact that we are engaging in less physical activity make us more likely to gain weight. To make sure the number on our scale does not increase with the number of days in a state of alarm, Aguilar recommended maintaining certain eating habits or routines: "Keep to the regular number of meals (breakfast-lunch-dinner), reducing the portion size a bit, since we are probably spending less energy due to reduced movement. Do not bulk up on soft drinks, snacks or cakes and replace them with foods that must be cooked (rice, pasta, pulses, vegetables, fish, etc). A good idea is to ask a family member to help you prepare a new recipe (and this does not have to be dessert)."


Be safe when shopping

Regarding the shopping, the Decree governing the state of alarm clearly establishes a series of regulations and the different food chains have added a few of their own directed at users of their establishments.

However, there are other important hygiene guidelines we should follow more than ever during a pandemic. Laura Soler, course instructor at the UOC Faculty of Health Sciences and expert in food security, summed it up as follows: "Before leaving the house, disinfect your hands. Once you are at the establishment, keep a 1 to 2-metre distance between you and the other shoppers and store employees and use disposable plastic gloves (provided by the establishment) to touch fresh food like fruits and vegetables. It's also important to avoid cross-contamination between food and any potentially contaminating source like surfaces, money, mobile phones... And always remember that if you touch the cart, shelves, refrigerator or freezer doors or basically any surface or if you pay with cash (right now the majority of establishments are only accepting credit cards), make sure not to touch your face afterwards and always wash your hands with disinfectant or soap and water when you're done shopping."


Photograph of Alicia Aguilar Martnez

Alicia Aguilar Martnez

Lecturer in the Health Sciences Department
Director of the Master's Degree in Nutrition and Health
Deputy Deanof Teaching in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Educational innovation in e-health; food studies from a health perspective; biotechnology; nutritional education.

Knowledge area: Nutrition.

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Photograph of Anna Bach

Anna Bach Faig

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Promoting health through nutrition and exercise. Spokesperson for community nutrition: workplace nutrition, gastronomy, restaurants and health.

Knowledge area: Nutrition, food and health.

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Laura Soler

Course instructor with the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Health Sciences

Knowledge area: Nutrition, food and health.