Quarantine Nutrition

Wake up, Zoom calls, sleep, repeat. Staying indoors for extended periods of time has students worried about hours-long Zoom calls, keeping up with schoolwork, and losing the social interaction that used to power us through the day. One issue not always on people’s radars? Nutrition. 

You might remember eating at your school’s dining hall in between classes and club meetings, eating with friends and study partners. With most schools closing down dining halls and many college students across America experiencing college from their childhood bedrooms, dining halls are a distant memory. Most students’ version of a “dining hall experience” looks more like going down to the kitchen at odd times of day to eat quickly before their next online class begins. Transitioning from normal lives to a quarantine lifestyle involves changes in eating, sleeping, and exercise habits– which of these changes are detrimental to college students?

The answer is all three, because eating, sleeping, and exercising all have an impact on nutrition. Nutritional needs change for students as they transition to a quarantine lifestyle, which differs from a “normal” college lifestyle. The difference is largely due to the higher frequency of two feelings: boredom and stress

Picture this: hours after dinner, it is difficult for you to sleep. You have been relaxing after a long, stressful day of Zooming and writing out homework by watching TV or scrolling through your phone. You don’t feel hungry, but you find yourself tiptoeing down the stairs to have a post-dinner slice of pizza or extra dessert. This situation (“midnight snacking”) is all too familiar for most college students. Why is it so common, and how could it potentially be detrimental to our nutrition?

With social interaction and extracurricular activities being extremely limited, many students find themselves with more time on their hands than before. As a result, they are inclined to consume more food, especially food that is carbohydrate- and sugar-heavy. Also known as “food cravings”, these urges to consume comfort food can be detrimental by creating an imbalance in our nutrition. In addition, feelings of stress leads us to want to consume foods that will increase serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone connected to positive feelings and happiness; essentially, students are prone to stress-eating in an attempt to relieve stress and improve mood. The craving of carbohydrates specifically is associated with an increase in serotonin production. 

Although boredom and stress push us towards carbohydrate-heavy foods, it is important to find a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins) to consume throughout the day. No macronutrient is detrimental to our nutrition, but focusing too much on one macronutrient creates an imbalance, which is linked to poor nutrition. 

Not only are students feeling more bored and more stressed during quarantine, but sleep schedules often change drastically. People tend to get less sleep at night; with a lack of structure throughout the day, intermittent napping and stress can both interfere with an 8-hour sleep cycle. Therefore, it is important to consume foods that will promote melatonin production at dinner. Melatonin is a hormone associated with sleep. Higher production of melatonin makes it easier for most people to fall asleep and stay asleep. Foods that promote melatonin production tend to be protein rich. For example, we have all heard that having a glass of milk before bed will help us sleep. Milk, a protein-rich food, is known to be associated with melatonin production . Plant-based foods also tend to be associated with sleep. However, at dinnertime (perhaps due to cravings) people tend to veer towards carbohydrates rather than protein-rich foods. By being conscious of what foods on your plate are protein-rich, you can focus on consuming a healthy amount of those foods.

Overall, students tend to over-consume certain macronutrients. However, not many college students know about another factor that is vital to their nutrition: micronutrients. Over-consuming certain macronutrients can lead to a micronutrient deficiency. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, and supplements. For example, calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc are the most common deficiencies in college students. You can get tested for these deficiencies by talking to your doctor. 

Although there is a long list of micronutrients we need to consume every day, we obtain most of them through the food we eat or even from our environment. Vitamin D, for example, is associated with the sun. Because students spend more time inside during quarantine, they lack sun exposure and are more likely to develop vitamin D deficiencies. It is important to make sure your body has enough vitamin D, because vitamin D has been linked to protection against viruses, as it helps protect the infection-prone respiratory tract. 

Nutritionists also suggest consuming more zinc during quarantine to protect against viral infection. The zinc in our bodies helps prevent SARS RNA polymerase from fully functioning, meaning it becomes more difficult for the virus to replicate and cause infection. While consuming extra zinc does not ensure protection from the virus, a zinc deficiency could cause one to be more prone to viral infection. 

How can students adjust their diets to a quarantine lifestyle? By making sure certain macronutrients and not being over-consumed, by eating protein-rich foods, and asking doctors to check for micronutrient deficiencies. It can be difficult to try and stop our cravings; instead of blocking your body from wanting food, reaching for less carbohydrates and sugars is recommended.  Turning instead to proteins or fruits/vegetables for midnight snacking is an alternative to carbohydrates and processed sugars. Although this may seem like a long list of different macro- and micronutrients to be tracking, the most effective way to create balance in a diet is by focusing on consuming a variety of foods.