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After several weeks of staying at home and social distancing, maybe you’re sick of cooking or have had one too many takeout meals. Whatever food rut you’re stuck in, dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, has some tips to help you get out of it. She also gives her take on some quarantine food trends.

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How to Break Out of a Food Rut with Beth Czerwony, RD

Podcast Transcript

Deanna Pogorelc:  Welcome to The Health Essentials podcast, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic. I'm your host, Deanna Pogorelc. As many of us work our way through month three for staying home and social distancing, it's not surprising that we might find ourselves stuck in a bit of a food rut. Maybe you're sick of cooking or you've had one too many take-out meals or you've understandably been doing a little comfort eating during this stressful time. To help us out with this, we have dietitian Beth Czerwony here virtually to help us bust out of this food rut. Hi, Beth. Thanks for being here.

Beth Czerwony:  Oh, thanks for having me.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Before we get started, please remember that this is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace your own physician's advice. Beth, can we start by talking about some of the food challenges that people might be experiencing during this crisis? I think one of the ones I hear most commonly is either mindless eating or emotional eating. Why are we prone to do that?

Beth Czerwony:  I think there's so many things that are just up in the air. We really don't know what this whole pandemic is going to do for us. There's not a sense of normalcy. We kind of have to create our own new ways, our new habits. You could be working from home. You could be working part-time at home and the other time at your office. The office isn't going to look the same anymore. You're not going to have the accessibility to foods, to restaurants; those types of things. A lot of times, people do normally just gravitate towards eating as comfort. And so, we see a lot of that. And we see a lot of bad choices. We see a lot of comfort foods. We see a lot of people maybe never had to cook before and now they feel like they have to cook because they don't have the accessibility.

There's so many new trends and changes that I've been seeing. Part of my role is to help people navigate towards that to get a little bit more, like I said, sense of normalcy and a routine.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Yeah. People are struggling a little bit with turning to food for comfort. Do you have any tips to help people work through that?

Beth Czerwony:  I think it's really important that we talk about mindful eating. Mindful eating is really being intentional. Making sure that you have set meal times, that the distractions are going to be less and you're actually sitting at a table. You're not on your phone going through Instagram. You're not answering emails. You're not watching television. You're sitting down. You're having your meal. It's planned.

Mindlessness comes very easily. That autopilot is, a lot of times, hard to turn off. And that's just when you have that bag of chips and you're just sitting there watching your Netflix and you're just eating and eating and eating. I think it's important to identify if you're more prone to do some mindless eating and some graze eating and then really set up those routine meal times. I think that that's going to help decrease distractions. Portioning out your meals, not eating out of containers, not eating over the sink is another good way that we encourage our patients to really be able to focus on what you're eating. Because when you identify what you're eating, you're going to end up eating less. You're going to have that sense of fullness and that sense of satisfaction a lot sooner.

Deanna Pogorelc:  I also wanted to ask you about weight loss. This feels like a particularly challenging time for someone who’s trying to lose weight. Are you seeing patients have success with that? Or is that a reasonable expectation for us to have at this time?

Beth Czerwony:  Interestingly enough, I work in the Metabolic and Bariatric Institute, so I work with patients that are preparing to have weight loss surgery. Through this entire pandemic, they have been working so hard. I am so proud of my patients. They really are taking the challenge of this pandemic and they're successful. You can lose weight. I think that when we look at the whole way of looking at things, some people are losing weight because now they're eating at home so they're not eating out. They're not tempted to do ... They're forced to eat what they have at home. They're not going to the grocery store because they don't feel like it's safe to go out every other day. They're cooking more. So, they're losing weight that way. They're not snacking as much because, again, they're not going to the vending machines at work. They're not having potlucks. We eat more when we socialize, so just by being a little bit more in self-isolation you're going to be eating a little bit less.

It is possible. It's kind of a flip of the coin. We do have some of those that graze a little bit more, been a little bit more stressed and so they end up eating more. And then we've got some that are like, "I'm going to take this opportunity that I'm at home and I'm going to be able to focus on myself and I'm going to be able to focus on what I'm eating." And they are successful. So, it really is possible but you kind of have to have a plan.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Right. And you mentioned people may be going to the grocery store less. I wanted to ask you about canned and frozen food. Maybe people are working through some of that stuff that they've had forever. Are those just as healthy as fresh produce? Is anything lost in the process of canning or freezing?

Beth Czerwony:  When we're looking at canned versus frozen, there are benefits to both. Fresh, a lot of times, isn't always best. Sometimes the fresh vegetables have been traveling from a very long distance and so as it's sitting in storage, it's losing some of its nutrients. Actually, the frozen vegetables could actually be a better option because they are picked and frozen within hours of being harvested, so you're going to retain a lot more of your nutrition that way. And then when we're looking at canned vegetables, a lot of times canned vegetables can stretch for a very long time. They've got a very long shelf life. And so, things like canned tomatoes actually are going to be healthier than the raw version because any time that you heat tomatoes, the lycopene is going to be developed and that's actually really good for eye health.

Depending on what it is ... Granted, a lot of times canned vegetables can have a little bit more sodium, so if you choose lower sodium versions, and they make those, you can do that. If not, you could always rinse those vegetables in a colander under running water for a couple of minutes. You're going to get a majority of the salt off. I don't want people to shy away, necessarily, from canned vegetables. If that's what you have, let's use it up. Let's just be a little bit smarter in how we're going to prepare that food.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Yeah. And if people are trying to shop with the idea that they might not be going to the grocery store for a while more, are there some shelf-stable staples that you would recommend people keeping ...

Beth Czerwony:  Yeah.

Deanna Pogorelc:  ... In their freezers or in their cabinets?

Beth Czerwony:  I am a big fan of canned beans and dried beans. I think that they're good, budget friendly, but the help extend the meal a lot of times. Meat is expensive and we've been seeing recently that there's been meat shortages, so they're going to be a little bit more expensive. So, adding lentils or legumes or beans to stews or to casseroles are going to help extend that meal a little bit longer and they're so inexpensive. I'm a big fan of any kind of dried or can bean. I'm a big fan of quinoa and brown rice and any of those kinds of whole grains that, again, are going to be very shelf-stable. They're going to be very budget friendly. They don't take up a lot of space in your kitchen. Those are going to be things that you can use that because they're dried, you're going to end up using not that much and they're going to be able to expand. So, they're going to be able to, like I said, stretch that meal for many more days.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Yeah. Okay. Another thing I want to ask you about is food boredom. I feel like, at least for me, I've been struggling to cook every day, not really going out to restaurants or to other people's houses for dinner. Can you share some ideas on what we can do to shake up the meal routine a little bit?

Beth Czerwony:  Yeah. This is a hard one because ... Especially if you ... There are some people, granted, they can eat the same thing every day. They don't mind, and that's great. But a lot of us do. We really want to have some sort of variety, whether that's the eating out versus eating in versus ordering a pizza; those types of things. Again, you got to plan for these kinds of things. If you know me at all, I'm a big fan of themed meals. I love to throw parties and I really like to have themes. So, a lot of times we'll have meatless Monday. Of course, we have taco Tuesday. We'll have pizzas on Friday. And so, it changes a little bit. It looks a little different now.

And so, you may end up still supporting your local businesses and saying, "Once or twice a week, I'm going to go order out and I'm going to support them."  And that's great.  But maybe you aren't able to do that or it just really doesn't ... You're not in the mood for it. So, really looking at different websites, really looking at different ... Going through some old cookbooks, maybe. Finding some themes. I think that that's going to be really important just to get different ideas, using different herbs, different spices, using seasonally. Of course, now we've got a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables; zucchinis and summer squash and all the great herbs. Using those, as well. I mean, grilling season, right? That kind of helps things a little bit easier, too. You can do a nice spice rub on some fish or some poultry and then you can grill it.

I love my multi-cooker. My multi-cooker, that is the best gift that I've ever gotten because you can throw together a meal in less than an hour that would normally take all day. Using different tools that maybe you hadn't used in a while; Crock-pots, Instant Cookers, any of those kinds of things. That might help things get a little bit more interesting as well.

Deanna Pogorelc:  You mentioned those herbs and spices. What are some favorites that you have in your cupboard?

Beth Czerwony:  I am a big fan of the warm spices. I love cumin. I love curry. It's just something ... It just makes the house smell delicious. I use that a lot of times. I'm using a lot more spice rubs. I'm using a lot of smoked paprika. I think it gives a really nice, smoky flavor to things. I love herbs. I love basil. I love parsley, oregano, any of those dill. Dill, oh my gosh. These things are really fun. You can buy them already grown and then just re-pot them at home if you feel like you want to be a gardener because you can have fresh herbs and spices at any time.

One of the tricks I a lot of times ... Especially towards the end of the season ... Is you can always take those herbs, you can pulse them down in a food processor, you can throw some extra virgin olive oil on top of them in some ice cube trays, freeze them, store them for later. And then you're going to have any of those herbs and spices that you can use to finish off dishes when it gets colder and you don't have the access to those fresh herbs anymore.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Yeah, that's a great idea. What about ... You mentioned also some seasonal produce. What are some of your favorites this time of year?

Beth Czerwony:  Of course, zucchini and summer squash are always going to be ones I'm ... Citrus. Citrus is always going to brighten anything up and they last a long time. Lemons and limes, oranges; any of those kinds of things. Those are going to be used for marinades. You can use the zest to finish off a salad. Any of those are going to be great. Berries now are in season, so that's always a really good fruit that you can use. But really, looking at, if we ever get the opportunity, go back to ... Think about the farmer's markets and think about the things that you would normally go there. Peruse the produce section. Maybe find something you don't normally use or you don't know what to do with like fennel. It's got such a great, licoricey flavor. Some people don't even know what to do with it. Challenge yourself. 

We've got some downtime. Challenge yourself to find a new recipe, a new product. You might find out that you love it. It's just being brave to experiment. I think that that's going to be an important part of getting through all this.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Yeah. I've been seeing a lot of people doing these beautiful charcuterie boards.

Beth Czerwony:  Oh, gosh.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Kind of like snack meals. Can that be healthy?

Beth Czerwony:  It can be. It can get us in trouble, too. We have to be cautious with this. One of the things I always look for when I make a charcuterie tray, myself, is I always try to find meats that don't have a lot of nitrates; that aren't overly processed. And you can find them. It takes a little bit of time but you can find them. I think, also, we look with our eyes. So, making a lot of very nice colors is going to be important. Having a lot of fresh fruits, a lot of fresh vegetables. We can do ... We don't always have to look at olives and tempanuts and those types of things. We can do roasted red peppers. Maybe you want to do a mushroom pate. Hummus. Hummus is so easy to make. You can throw some roasted vegetables in that, as well, to make things interesting. Any of those kinds of things are going to be in season, they're going to be tasty, and they're going to be a little bit more interesting.

If you want to take some prosciutto and wrap it in melon or some watermelon. Or if you want to have some cheese, you want to get some of the lower fat cheeses like a feta or a goat cheese. Or maybe some of the harder cheeses like a Parmesan or a sharp cheddar. Any of those are going to be better choices than maybe the traditional ones that you would normally find.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Sure. I wanted to get your take on a few of the food trends that I've seen emerge during this quarantine period and see whether they're healthy. And if not, if there are swaps or substitutes that could be made to lighten them up a little bit.

Beth Czerwony:  Sure.

Deanna Pogorelc:  The first one is banana bread.

Beth Czerwony:  Yes.

Deanna Pogorelc:  I've been seeing a lot of people using up their brown bananas and it's comforting but is it healthy?

Beth Czerwony:  Banana bread has taken over. Banana bread has taken over. Honestly, too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing. We've got to be cautious. We have to pay attention. How much are we having? Yeah. We need to use up those bad bananas. You can always freeze them for later to be able to use them up. But to make them a little healthier, let's see ... What are we putting into it? You can always decrease the amount of sugar by a third and you're still going to get ... Because bananas are so sweet, so you can decrease the amount of sugar in the whole product without really making it taste differently or compromising the texture. That's going to be important. You can always decrease the amount of eggs. The whole eggs. You can do more egg whites than whole eggs, so that would always be another thing.

And then, certainly, using apple sauce instead of oil is another good way to swap things out without really changing the overall texture. Because you expect a certain consistency, a certain way that it's supposed to taste. I wouldn't make all the changes. I would maybe pick one or two but I certainly wouldn't make a complete overhaul because it might be a little bit of a disaster.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Okay. Fair enough. Okay. A second one, also bread, but sourdough bread. So many people doing their sourdough starters. What is it, specifically, about sourdough that's so interesting or special?

Beth Czerwony:  Yeah. I'll tell you, I admit, I have done quite a bit of sourdough through this pandemic. I don't know what the exact draw is. Maybe it's because you have to kneed it six to 10 times every half of an hour. Maybe it just helps with overall reduction of stress, those types of things. I'm not really quite sure. It's fun to make the starter. I'll be perfectly honest. It's fun to make the starter; to find that, to feed it, to have something to make from it. Fermented foods, themselves, have been shown to really increase ... They've got flora. It helps with our immune functions. There's a lot of really good results that come out of fermented foods. But unfortunately, once you throw the bread in the over, any of that fermentation, any of that good flora potential, is kind of gone. We can't really think of it as a probiotic food.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Okay. While we're on the topic of breads, can I ask you about carbs? A lot of people think carbs are bad and are they all bad? Or some good, some not good?

Beth Czerwony:  Yeah. I really hate to label food as good or bad. I think it really is important to understand ... Are you more prone to eat more carbs than you are other foods? Is it going to be a whole grain? Is it going to be a high fiber version? Is it going to be a simple carb that are in cookies, cakes, sweets? Those types of things. I think everything in balance is going to be important. I think if you are ... We tend to go towards carbs for comfort and so sometimes we end up not making good choices, per se, because we're eating a little bit more. And sometimes some of the carbs are a little bit more calorically dense so you end up eating a little bit more and that type of thing. You just have to balance it out. You have to see how everything balances out and not really, like I said, label it good or bad.

Deanna Pogorelc:  With sourdough, is there any way to improve the health of that? Can you use the whole wheat flour or anything?

Beth Czerwony:  You could. You could. And I do. My starter I did with whole wheat flour, rather. And you could. There's not a lot to it to really try to change up the components of it to make it any healthier. So, yeah, probably the best change would be the whole wheat flour. Yeah. And it doesn't really change the consistency or the texture that much, so if you're nervous about using that it doesn't make it necessarily any denser or heavier. It's pretty close to the original.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Okay, great. What about whipped coffee? I've seen a lot of this. What is it and what's in it?

Beth Czerwony:  Yeah. Again, I'm guilty of this trend, as well. A lot of times I'll stick it in my protein drink in the morning. And really, what it is is just instant coffee with some sugar, some hot water and you just whip it until ... You aerate it and you whip it and you can throw it over ... I've seen it over almond milk or skim milk. Like I said, I personally put mine in my protein drink in the morning so that way I get that little bit of caffeine and I get my protein drink. It's a trend. I don't know where it came from. I don't know if it's going anywhere. It's fun to do. It's delicious. It's probably going to stay, especially if people are more prone to not be going out, not getting their morning coffee. It's certainly something that people are going to be able to try and to be able to use.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Okay. And then finally, homemade pizza. Can you give us some tips to making a healthy homemade pizza?

Beth Czerwony:  Yeah. It's really all about the toppings; just being aware of what you're going to put on and how much. Again, you really want to stay away from a lot of the heavier meats; the pepperonis and the sausages and that type of thing. Fill it up with lots of veggies if you can. That's going to be a really good way to get the volume you're looking for, to get the mouth feel, to feel like you're actually eating something but you're not going to have a lot of calories. And then, depending on how you're going to make it ... Thin crust is going to, of course, be a little bit better, less calories than the thicker crust or the Chicago style; that type of thing. It's really just taking the time to see what are you going to put on it and then, certainly, how much are you going to eat of it? You just got to be aware of that, as well. You can't finish the whole thing.

Deanna Pogorelc:  For someone ordering take-out, maybe, what are some tips for finding something that isn't going to completely destroy their day and send them off the rails?

Beth Czerwony:  I think a lot of times, with everything being online it's really much easier. You can look at the menu. You can see what you want. What did you already have for the day? Have you allotted the calories for maybe indulging? It's your favorite restaurant, you don't normally have it, so you're going to be able to indulge a little bit more. Maybe not, so then you're going to have to maybe be able to modify that a little bit. Less dressing or avoiding having heavier sauces or meats or those types of things. I think, looking ahead, a lot of times menus will already have the calorie levels already listed, so that might help you, as well, make a better decision overall. And then, certainly, if it's really very good you could always split it. So, you have what you want and you just know that you got to split the portion and have the other half for another meal. And it might work out that way, too.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Sure. Great. Do you have any other final words of wisdom or encouragement for people who feel maybe like they just aren't eating their best right now?

Beth Czerwony:  I think the best thing, and this is what I go over with my patients, is get a routine. Get some sort of routine. As we're going into the next month and some of our patients might be going back to work ... Like I said, they might be going back part-time. They might be no going back at all. I think it's important we get a routine. I think we need to get a routine eating schedule. I think we need to get a routine sleep schedule. I think we need to get a routine sleep cycle. Because when you don't sleep well you're going to end up eating more the next day. If you're stress isn't able to be managed, you're going to end up going towards that comfort food, those grazing foods.

I think it's really important that you look at the big picture, and not just necessarily the nutrition part of it because when we don't sleep well, when we're not ... When we are feeling stress, those are all going to affect our eating habits and our food choices. I think that's really important. Have a plan. Know what you're going to do. Know what you're going to eat. Know when you're going to go to the grocery store. Know when you're going to eat out. When you're going to, like I said, going to support those local businesses. A lot of the local churches and other organizations are having food drives, so maybe that's something that you want to be a part of and you want to be able to help others. Make that part of your shopping list, as well, so that you're able to help and you're not running at the last minute back and forth to the grocery store when you don't need to.

And I think, really, the most important thing, and I talk about this a lot with my patients, is have an attitude of gratitude. Everything is very, very uncertain. We don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. Be grateful for what you have. Look at the victories that we have every day. Maybe you had a bad day eating. Tomorrow is a fresh start. Always being able to look at the bright side of things, I think that's what's going to help us get through this whole pandemic. And I think this is what's going to help us to be more successful in the goals that we set forward, moving on from today.

Deanna Pogorelc:  Yeah. Great advice. Thank you so much for being here and for giving us all those great tips.

Beth Czerwony:  My pleasure.

Deanna Pogorelc:

For more information on nutrition therapy, you can visit ClevelandClinic.org/Nutrition. To speak with a dietician or to make an appointment, call 216-444-3046. And to listen to more of our Health Essentials podcast with our Cleveland Clinic experts, visit ClevelandClinic.org/HEpodcast or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us @ClevelandClinic, one word, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Thank you for joining us.

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