Focusing on real ‘comfort food’ will improve your outcomes
By David Dunaief, M.D.
I think it’s fair to say that our world has been radically altered by the current COVID-19 pandemic. If you are at home weathering this storm, it can feel like you are in a literal silo.
So naturally, we need to find things that make us feel “better.” Many of us reach for food to help comfort us. Guess which food item has had the largest sales increase in the U.S. from 2019. Here is a hint: it’s not broccoli. It’s frozen cookie dough, where sales are up 454 percent (1).
But there is a difference between food that comforts just the mind and food that comforts both the mind and the body. What is the difference? Let’s look at two recent examples from my clinical practice.
Food that comforts the mind and body
First, let’s look at the results of a 71-year-old male who stopped eating out during COVID-19, like so many of us. Apparently, for this patient, eating out meant indiscretions with his diet. While at home, there was less temptation to stray from his dietary intentions. The results speak for themselves.
In a month, his nutrient level improved, measured using serum beta carotene levels. His inflammation, measured by c-reactive protein (CRP), was reduced 40 percent. What is the importance of inflammation? It is the potential basis for many of the chronic diseases that are rampant in the U.S. (2). His kidney function increased by about 14 percent with an increase in his glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which helps remove waste from the kidney, from 51 to 58. This patient, who suffers from gout, also found his uric acid dropped. Finally, and most importantly, his symptoms improved, and he garnered more energy. He described himself as enjoying food more.
I am not suggesting you don’t order out, but do it wisely. Diametrically opposed is our second example.
Food that comforts the mind only
This 72-year-old female decided to embrace ultra-processed foods, adding cookies, cakes and sour-dough breads to her diet. Her kidney function decreased by more than 15 percent, with the GFR shifting from 88 to 63. Her inflammation, measured by CRP, went up by 75 percent. Her LDL, “bad cholesterol,” increased by more than 20 percent. Her allergy symptoms worsened. She described herself as more sluggish and, to boot, she gained five pounds.
What makes these examples even more interesting is that both patients are deemed in the high-risk category for getting severe COVID-19 and being hospitalized. COVID-19 is associated with elevated CRP, which may increase the risk for more lung lesions and the risk of severe disease (3).
What is the moral of the story? Use this time to focus on foods that comfort both the mind and the body. Make food work for you and against the common enemies of COVID-19 and chronic diseases that are putting people at higher risk for viruses.
What about exercise?
Just because we are cooped up indoors most of the time does not mean we can’t exercise. Time and again, exercise benefits have been shown. Yet, we are sitting more and, with social distancing, we have less incentive to go outside or opportunities to socialize, go to the gym or do many of our usual activities.
However, not to fret. There was a recent small study with eight volunteers equally split between men and women. Results showed that four-minute intervals of exercise throughout the day that interrupted continuous sitting led to a substantial improvement in triglycerides and metabolized more fat after high-fat meals the next day, compared to continuous sitting for eight hours uninterrupted and then eating a high fat meal the next day (4).
The participants used a stationary bike, exercising intensely for four seconds and then resting for 45 seconds, repeating the sequence five times in a row. They completed this four-minute sequence once an hour for eight hours. Their daily intense exercise totaled 160 seconds. This bodes well for very short bursts of exercise rather than sitting for long periods without movement.
Not everyone has a stationary bike, but you can do jumping jacks, run in place, or even dance vigorously to your favorite tunes once an hour.
Ventilator vs. Incentive Spirometer
As I’m sure you’ve been reading, some with severe COVID-19 require ventilators. Unfortunately, the statistics with ventilators are dismal. According to a recent study of 5700 COVID-19 patients in the New York region, 88.1 percent of patients died (5). Hospitals are trying alternate approaches while using oxygen masks not ventilators, such as proning (turning patients on their stomach instead of lying on their backs in bed) and having them sit up in a chair in order to help with oxygenation in the lungs in those who have low oxygen saturation.
However, the ultimate exercise for the lung and the ability to improve oxygenation is an incentive spirometer. This device expands your lungs as you inhale. The more you do it, the better your lung functioning. One study, which I mentioned in previous articles on lung function, involved inhaling a total of 50 breaths a day which in two increments (6).
The brand of spirometer used was a Teleflex Triflo II. This costs less than five dollars online at medicalvitality.com
What about incentive spirometer in sick patients? There was a small study with patients who had COPD exacerbations (7). Those who were given an incentive spirometer plus medical treatment saw a significant increase in the blood gases over a two-month period. Also, the quality of life improved for those using the incentive spirometer.
Remember, one of the factors that may be a sign that someone is at high risk for severe COVID-19 is very low oxygen saturation. If you can improve oxygen saturation with incentive spirometer that is readily available, how can you pass this up?
While it is tempting to gorge yourself with food that comforts the mind, DON’T! Foods that comfort the mind and the body protect you not only in the short term, but also the longer term from the consequences of chronic diseases.
Therefore, focus on DGLV (dark green leafy vegetables) that raise beta-carotene, which in turn lowers CRP. This can be achieved with diet by increasing consumption of beta-carotene-rich fruits and vegetables while limiting consumption of beta-carotene-poor ultra-processed and fatty foods. Interestingly, it is much easier right now to get DGLVs than it is to get certain ultra-processed foods. Add in exercise and an incentive spirometer and you will comfort your body plus your mind.
(1) CNBC.com April 23,2020. (2) Front Immunol. 2018; 9: 1302. (3) Med Mal Infect. 2020 Mar 31;S0399-077X(20)30086-X. (4) Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Online April 17, 2020. (5) JAMA. 2020 Apr 22;e206775. (6) Ann Rehabil Med. Jun 2015;39(3):360-365. (7) Respirology. 2005 Jun;10(3):349-53.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.