Nutrition is the foundation of my active life and joy for living. I am a two-year survivor of stage II melanoma and have lived 28 years with multiple sclerosis (MS). I learned about eating well, getting active, and reducing stress. As a result, I was able to regain my wellness, complete a master’s in nursing, and become a critical care nurse. Knowing how important nutrition was for me and my patients, I decided to finish my PhD in clinical nutrition. I am now an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing and nutrition researcher. -Dr. Ruth Grossman
liveWELL: Dr. Grossmann, maintaining good nutrition has been recommended throughout the pandemic to help manage stress and stay healthy. How does healthy eating help us manage stress and contribute to our overall mental well-being?
Dr. Ruth Grossmann, RN, MNHP, PhD: Stress depletes the body of energy and causes damage to the structures that make up the body. Just as driving more miles means that we need to stop for gas more frequently, clean out the car, keep up with repairs, etc.; increased stress means we need to stop and care for our bodies more frequently. Food is important because it supplies both the physical energy and the structural nutrients to rebuild the body. We need both at this time.
Food is also amazing because it provides comfort and connection. We miss sharing a meal with our close friends because a meal signifies fellowship and spiritual connection. We go to our favorite comfort foods to give ourselves a “hug” when we are sad. The sugar in many comfort foods does increase our feel-good hormones making us feel better in the short-term.
A few suggestions for managing stress and stay healthy:
Make a plan to include foods that give you comfort. Work either small amounts of high-calorie or healthy versions of comfort foods into a daily eating plan. It gives us something to look forward to, and we need the comfort right now.
Meet with friends and family outside or through electronic means. We need connection more than ever right now. Focus on physically distanced, NOT socially distanced.
Seek out other ways to care for our stressed-out hearts. Some of the things that work for me include going outside for 20 minutes without my phone and spending time in nature, having a hot drink and looking at photos of times with friends and family, going for a physically distanced walk with a good friend (either in-person or on the phone), listening to loud music and dancing around the kitchen, taking a hot shower or bath, and cuddling with my furry cat friends.
liveWELL: What foods are the best medicine for boosting our immunity to help us fight COVID-19 and seasonal illness such as common colds and the flu?
Dr. Ruth Grossmann, RN, MNHP, PhD: The best medicine is a balanced diet filled with fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein (plant or animal), nuts, and seeds. A good dietary pattern is the Mediterranean pattern. Great immunity is supported by eating colorful fruits and vegetables.
An important nutrient to our immune systems is vitamin D. I mention vitamin D because it is difficult to get adequate amounts from our diets and very few of us are getting vitamin D from sun exposure right now. Most adults are at their lowest vitamin D levels in the winter. I highly encourage healthy adults to supplement with 1000- 2000 IU of vitamin D each day. If you have any health concerns, ask your primary care provider about a healthy dose for you.
liveWELL: Dr. Grossmann, at the University of Iowa, 78% of faculty and staff reported on their 2020 Personal Health Assessment that they do not eat the recommended 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day. What advice do you have for UI employees on small changes that they can make to incorporate more healthy foods into their lifestyle?
Dr. Ruth Grossmann, RN, MNHP, PhD: Americans eat 1.5 servings of vegetables and 0.9 servings of fruit per day. We can all improve our health by adding more variety and quantity of fruit and vegetables to our diets.
Add a healthy choice to your breakfast. No matter what time of day you break your overnight fast, choose something that reminds you of your commitment to care for the amazing body you have been given. This is a sign to yourself that you are committed to adding healthy habits to your life.
For example, drink a large glass of water, eat a cup of berries, don’t add sugar to the first cup of coffee you drink, and eat high quality protein.
Have a fruit or vegetable at breakfast. Make it easy! Grab a handful of baby carrots, an apple, or add some spinach to your eggs.
Add a piece of fruit to a snack or at the end of lunch.
Have grab-and-go fruits and vegetables ready to eat. I like to make my refrigerator look like a grab and go for healthy snacks. When foods are in easy reach, we eat more.
“Pump up the volume.” An easy way to add vegetables and reduce calorie intake is to “pump up the volume” of any meal by adding frozen vegetables to it. Recently, I have eaten more take-out foods. I like to add a package of frozen vegetables to my meal. It improves my nutrient intake, and I eat less of the take-out.
liveWELL: Are there other things you are seeing in your nutrition research that employees should be aware to improve or maintain their well-being?
Dr. Ruth Grossmann, RN, MNHP, PhD: Make good decisions for your future self, so that you can remain strong and active throughout your life. Recently, I have had the opportunity to work with older individuals who have fractured a hip. Hip fractures and osteoarthritis are more likely in individuals who do not eat a well-balanced diet and who do not exercise (walking 30 minutes per day). If someone does have a fracture or joint replacement, nutrition before and after surgery improves quality and length of life. To maintain your well-being, I encourage you to think of caring for your future self. It is as simple as going for a walk and having a serving of fruits and vegetables at every meal.
For more resources on nutrition, visit this page.
This article originally appeared in the liveWELL 2021 Spring Employee Well-Being Newsletter.