Staying healthy at home

To prevent weight gain amid lockdown, better planning and fixing bad eating habits are paramount to prevent detrimental long-term effects, advises the director of the Institute of Nutrition

Besides her fear of the novel coronavirus that has infected over 70,000 Thais so far, Ploy* feels anxious every time she steps onto a weight scale.

"I've gained a few kilos already since I've been working from home during the third wave of the pandemic," said Ploy, an office lady in her 50s.

Ploy is not alone. A number of Thais, if not the entire world, have voiced concerns over the fact that they have put on weight during the pandemic as they are forced to spend more time at home, leaving little opportunity for physical activity. Researchers have also noticed that more than half of the world's population has gained weight during lockdowns due to Covid-19. In the United States, Americans gained nearly 1kg per month under Covid-19 stay-at-home orders last year as reported in a new study published earlier this year in JAMA Network Open. In Japan, 38% of around 400 surveyed Japanese women had also gained weight -- ranging from 1-7kg -- during lockdowns.

Meanwhile in Thailand, although official statistics have not been collected regarding how many people gained weight during home isolation and work-from-home, several healthcare providers and experts have warned of the possibility of people getting fatter unless diet control measures are properly implemented.

"Now that the country is being hit hard by Covid-19, everybody is focused on fixing and preventing a public health crisis. As a result, people have been encouraged to maintain social distance and to stay at home instead of going outside. This could result in weight gain among Thais, especially since they will engage in less physical activities compared to non-pandemic times," said Assoc Prof Chalat Santivarangkna, director of the Institute of Nutrition under Mahidol University.

Chalat said that not only has people's food purchasing behaviour changed during the pandemic, so have their eating habits. As in other countries, the spread of Covid-19 has forced people to eat less in restaurants and depend more on food delivery services and many are choosing fast food as their takeaway option due to easy access and fast delivery.

"For many people, fast food is a convenient choice given there are always branches not far from their home, not to mention attractive deals and promotions. Therefore, they do not hesitate to have fast food delivered to their doorstep."

Ordering fast food may not sound serious for many but Chalat said that in the long run, overconsumption of such foods could potentially lead to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and this issue should be something to watch out for especially in people with underlying diseases.

Unfortunately, poor eating habits have also been seen in children amid school closures. Their sedentary lifestyle in which they have to sit for hours in front of computers for online classes could also result in weight gain.

"Children who stay at home are tempted to snack all the time. When snack packs are opened, kids enter auto-pilot mode and start nibbling and automatically finish the packet. Unfortunately, this can also happen to adults also," Chalat commented.

"So, we cannot just worry about infectious diseases," he added. "Non-communicable illnesses can wreak havoc on people too. If they fall sick of those diseases now, they will face great difficulty accessing necessary treatments when the situation at hospitals is already tough."

To keep your weight in check during stay-at-home, diet control and adjustment is key -- both on a quantitative and qualitative basis.

According to Chalat, an average adult requires a calorie intake of 2,000 per day. However, with less physical activity, the calorie intake can be lowered to 1,600 to 1,800 per day depending on the individual. For athletes or exercise enthusiasts who usually require 2,400 calories per day, that number can be decreased to 2,000 per day.

Lowering calorie intake can be achieved by either controlling the amount of food intake or finding a way to have more physical activity, and this does not just mean working out but also other things like gardening.

To control the quality of food you consume, the entire shopping-to-cooking cycle must also be reorganised, the nutrition expert advised. This process starts from buying and stocking the right ingredients. In an unprecedented public health crisis, people should spend more time planning and organising what to buy because a trip to the supermarket is no longer the same.

"Before Covid-19, we could frequently visit supermarket as much as we liked but now the situation is different. We might not go to the supermarket as often as before and when we do, we try to spend as little time as possible. So instead of slowly browsing through shelves from one to the next, we now might need a list of what we want to buy, grab the items and check out as fast as we can. We can no longer linger."

With fewer trips to the supermarket, choosing the right things to stock is challenging.

"When it comes to fresh ingredients, people should buy a wide variety of them," advised Chalat. "Pay attention to healthy ingredients rather than those high in, say, sugar and sodium. Opt for fruits that last longer and are high in vitamin C such as orange, apple, passion fruit and green mango. Vegetables such as carrot, collard greens, pumpkin, cabbage and Chinese cabbage are also recommended as they are rich in fibre and can be stored for quite some time."

Cooking at home also means more physical activity. Yet, this process also requires good planning too.

"Meat that spoils easily should be cooked first or turned into dishes that can be refrigerated or frozen. Fruits like oranges, passion fruit or papaya can be juiced and stored. Snacks should be healthy ones like dried fruits or peas."

People who do not cook should opt for restaurants that serve good-quality food when ordering in instead of always relying on fast food.

"Consumers always want to save delivery fees. So they might order a lot of food at once. This again requires planning because when you have lots of food, you must learn to divide them into portions, what to eat when and so forth.

"With Covid-19 continuing to spread and people unable to spend time outside as much as they used to, if they do not fix their diets, they might end up eating the same unhealthy food over and over which can be detrimental to their health."

* not her real name.


Food planning during Covid-19

To ensure healthy diets and to avoid unwanted weight gain during the pandemic, Assoc Prof Chalat Santivarangkna, director of the Institute of Nutrition under Mahidol University, advised three food organisational step

When buying:

Make a list of things you want to buy at the supermarket including fresh ingredients. Be sure to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the list. Good-quality proteins such as chicken, pork and tuna are recommended as they are high in vitamins and minerals. Avoid adding snacks or foods high in sugar and sodium to your shopping cart.

When cooking:

Fresh ingredients that spoil easily must be cooked first or turned into dishes that can be kept in the fridge. Family members can help out during cooking to increase physical activity.

When ordering in:

Opt for healthy meals. If you order a lot at once, separate them into portions.