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During this pandemic, caused by COVID-19, we have seen some regional scarcity of foods such as meat and eggs as well as rising prices in many types of foods. With dine-in eating at restaurants not an option anymore, we are cooking and baking more at home.

Research shows consumers are preparing and ordering out more comfort foods, namely pizza, macaroni and cheese, and burgers. Finding comfort in familiar foods is not uncommon, especially with today’s stressful uncertainty and tomorrow’s unknowns. However, if you are concerned about eating as healthfully as possible to maintain a strong immune system to help fight infections like COVID-19 and prevent or lessen chronic disease, you may be conflicted. How can you fit in higher-calorie comfort foods and still maintain a healthy diet overall? A good place to find the answer to this question is USDA Dietary Guidelines.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans charts out a road map to achieve the goals of a healthy lifestyle. These guidelines are updated every five years per federal legislation by a panel of nutrition research experts, including registered dietitians, medical experts and scientists from academia, private industry and public institutions, who review all published, peer-reviewed research. The guidelines are written for a broad audience in the United States to obtain and maintain good health, including prevention of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Since heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the U.S. and diet plays a significant role in prevention and treatment, the Dietary Guidelines call for us to follow a healthy eating pattern across our lifespans, and states that “all food and beverage choices matter.”

There are five guidelines that encourage us to engage in healthy eating patterns. Guideline four helps explain: “Follow a healthy eating pattern over time to help support a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices. Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices. Consider cultural and personal preferences to make these shifts easier to accomplish and maintain.”

Let’s unpack this guidance to make it practical for you and today’s food challenges.

So, back to our original issue, how can we consume higher-calorie comfort foods and still maintain the goal of a healthy diet? The research the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is based on describes choosing a nutrient-dense eating pattern first, meaning foods higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, per calorie versus foods that are higher in calories and lower in these nutrients. This means thinking ahead to fit in any foods you like that are higher in sugar, saturated fat and sodium into your eating pattern. In doing so, you will obtain all the nutrients in the calorie range you need, thereby helping to reduce risk for (or controlling, if diagnosed) high blood pressure, diabetes, many cancers, and heart disease or infections.

Your eating pattern over time and your own cultural and personal food preferences are keys to this issue. Absolutely eat your favorite foods! I love chocolate, for example. Since it is a higher-calorie, less-nutrient-dense food, I watch my portion size and how often I eat it. If I were younger (e.g., growing, with a higher metabolic rate and burning more calories) or increased my physical activity, I would have more calories available to consume bigger portions or eat comfort foods more often. But, in this case, if I want to consume more, I can choose an activity I enjoy, such as walking, biking, or yoga, for example, and increase my time doing it.

So, eat comfort foods if you like. We all grow up with certain familiar family foods that make us feel good. All foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern. Look at your week and plan out your main meals to include all those essential food groups (vegetable, fruit, protein, dairy, grains) first. Then select any added higher-calorie foods, such as a snack or special comfort food, and decide how often you will consume them and how much. The Nutrition Facts panel is a great tool to help. It was updated this year to now disclose any added sugars in foods, as well as calories with realistic serving sizes.

Lastly, stay tuned, as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are due for revision at the end of 2020. As always, research marches on. In this case, updated nutrition research will keep us on the right track to good health.

For more information on ways to improve your eating pattern and health, check our Penn State Extension website for articles, news, webinars, fact sheets, classes and more at https://extension.psu.edu/youth-family-and-health/nutrition-diet-and-health.

Lynn James is a Penn State Extension senior educator.

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