As lockdown measures are imposed throughout the world, all of our daily routines have been well and truly shaken up. Our activity levels, eating schedules and nutritional habits are likely to change considerably in the weeks and months to come. We need to consider how to redress this balance, how to not lose sight of our goals of weight loss, maintenance or anything else.
For any weight-based goal, the dietary adjustment we need to consider most of all is tempering our calorie intake based on our new energy expenditure. The calories we harvest from the foods and fluids we ingest are used to produce energy. Or, when our energy needs are met, calories are stored in our blood stream, muscles, fat tissue and so on. Once energy is produced and used, it is lost. It cannot generally be recycled.
This means that we can alter our bodyweight by manipulating the balance of energy coming into the body, and energy being used for movement and supporting bodily functions. As we are now advised to stay at home, without access to gyms and fitness facilities, our energy expenditure has, most likely, reduced. We now need our calorie intake to match our new normal daily energy expenditure.
The quickest way to adjust our food intake based on our activity to work out our basal metabolic rate (BMR) (i.e. how much energy we burn at rest) and then multiply it based on how our activity level has changed. One rough way to calculate your BMR is to multiply your bodyweight in kilograms by 22 for men, and 20 for women. Next, you multiply your answer by one of the following activity multipliers to get your daily maintenance calorie needs:
Multiply by 1.0-1.2 if you are now sedentary
Multiply by 1.3-1.4 if you are now lightly active
Multiply by 1.5-1.6 if you are now moderately active
Multiply by 1.6-1.7 if you are now very active
Multiply by 1.8-1.9 if you are now extremely active
Being ‘moderately active’ generally means you are doing 10,000 steps a day, and three 90-120 minute weightlifting sessions a week. Keep in mind that these estimates are based on population averages, and the rough BMR calculation works best for people with average weights and fat percentages. Nonetheless, this calculation should give you a good idea of how much you need to consume to stay on top of your weight.
A grandiose term for how easily food is accessible to you day to day. Your food environment encompasses the visibility of foods, how easy the foods you have at home are to eat (i.e. do they need cooking first?), their palatability and how calorie dense they are.
Our food environment is typically spread across at least two locations, at home and at work, and can have a huge impact on our desire and likelihood to eat foods. Hall wrote in a 2018 paper that although the continued rise of obesity cannot be pinned on a single cause, “it seems clear that the food environment is likely the primary driver”.
One of the most widely cited studies examining the impact of food environment was published in 2006 by Wansink et al. This four-week study exposed 40 secretaries to four different food environments within their workplaces – a clear or opaque bowl of chocolate placed on their desk or two metres away from them. When the chocolate was closer, and more visible, participants consumed much more over time. Participants also reported that the chocolates were harder to resist, kept attracting their attention and invaded their thoughts much more when they were closer to them, and more visible.
Wansink et al.’s (2006) study shows that if we want to avoid overeating and poor nutritional choices, we need to control the availability of foods in a way that makes it harder to get hold of and eat highly palatable and calorie dense foods. Instead, we need to make it easier and more enjoyable to access and consume healthy, nutrient dense foods – especially if our goal is weight loss. We can do this in three ways:
- Avoiding buying and storing foods that we know we will overeat – typical examples include cookies, pizza, crisps, fizzy drinks and so on
- Keeping bowls and food displays filled with fruit and vegetables to make it more likely that you reach for them instead of calorie dense snacks
- Buying as few pre-packaged and pre-made foods as possible – instead stocking up on single ingredient foods that require preparation and cooking before they can be eaten
We all have a lot more time on our hands, so make the most of it by trying new meal prep methods, recipes, flavours, textures and so on. In doing so, we build up our self-efficacy with food preparation and build up an arsenal of healthy, time-friendly options to choose from when the lockdown is alleviated.
One of the most valuable tools a meal prepper can have in their kitchen is a slow cooker, and there are hundreds and thousands of healthy meal recipes you can find online. Before long, you will find options that make dieting easier, and more enjoyable – freeing you up to spend less time actively cooking, and more time enjoying a wider variety of dishes.