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Exclusive interview: Cynthia Sass, celebrity nutritionist, shares tips to improve your diet during coronavirus crisis

Cynthia Sass
Cynthia Sass, celebrity nutritionist, reveals what to eat to stay healthy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pic credit: Cynthia Sass

Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian, is famed as a consultant for five different professional sports teams and nutrition counselor for Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy winners.

The three-time New York Times best-selling author, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition science and a master’s degree in public health, talked in an exclusive interview with Monsters and Critics about diet and how to improve what you eat while staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Alkaline diet: Are there real benefits?

With so many unknowns about coronavirus, social media has gone into overload touting different diet trends and supplements. One of the main ones to gain attention during the current crisis is the alkaline diet, especially around its supposed health benefits in helping to strengthen your immune system.

Cynthia explained exactly how the alkaline diet works.

“The theory behind the alkaline diet is to eat in a way that optimizes pH balance, by avoiding or minimizing foods like meat, dairy, sweets, caffeine, alcohol, artificial and processed foods, and consuming more plant based foods, including fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, and seeds,” summed up Sass.

She stressed that there is no scientific evidence that an alkaline diet can actually help when it comes to preventing or treating coronavirus. After reviewing the National Library of Medicine for published articles related to COVID-19 and nutrition, she found nothing that related to the alkaline diet — and said there are “no well-controlled published studies” at all about diets and their relationship to the disease.

However, there is good news when it comes to helping your body prepare if you do become ill, according to Sass. She emphasized the importance of doing things to try and maximize your immune system, such as:

  • limiting or eliminating processed foods, sugar, and alcohol
  • prioritizing whole plant based foods, including a wide variety of produce colors and types
  • eating whole grains, pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas), nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices.

Although there are similarities to an alkaline diet, Cynthia emphasized the importance of not limiting or eliminating whole plant foods that can support your immune system, regardless of if they are shown as more acidic.

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Vitamin C is critical for immune function. However, I do NOT recommend taking high dose supplements in an effort to boost your body’s defenses. . 🍊The recommended daily vitamin C target is 75 mg for adult women and 90 mg for men, although some experts believe this should be raised to 200 mg, the amount that saturates the body, meaning any more will be excreted. . ❌ Your body can’t store vitamin C, so when you consume more than you need absorption is reduced and the surplus is eliminated by your kidneys. But this doesn’t mean that high doses can’t create unwanted side effects. Vitamin C has an established Tolerable Upper Intake Level, or UL, essentially the maximum advised intake, from both food and supplements combined. It’s 2,000 mg a day for adults and less for children. While some people may be OK consuming this amount, megadoses have been shown to potentially trigger bloating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, headaches, insomnia, iron overload, and kidney stones. In other words, more isn’t better, and the last thing you need when you’re trying to stay well is a health issue that can be avoided. . 😷 While vitamin C has been studied in people with respiratory infections, the effects are primarily seen in people with suboptimal blood levels. While it’s unclear if this is partly cause or consequence, research appears to support a goal of reaching saturation (~200 mg/day) for infection prevention, and reserving high treatment doses for supervised therapeutic situations. So, no need for high dose supplements now, and it’s not necessary (and is potentially risky) to undergo something like IV infusions. . 🍓It’s also easy to consume the amount you need to support immunity through food. A medium orange provides 70 mg and a medium raw red bell pepper packs 150 mg. Other sources include green bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, potatoes, kiwi, strawberries, papaya, guava, mango, pineapple, and cantaloupe, as well as other types of citrus, like tangerines, grapefruit, lemon and lime. . 🥦 Obtaining your vitamin C from plant based foods also ups your intake of other key nutrients involved with immunity and wellness!

A post shared by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RDN, CSSD (@cyn_sass) on

“For example, citrus fruits are often listed as acidic, but they are important sources of vitamin C and other nutrients that support immunity,” pointed out Sass. “It’s also worth noting that there is no one research-based standardized alkaline diet. You may see a food listed as acidic on a chart on one website and listed as alkaline on another.”

How to improve your diet if you’re on a budget

Many people face a challenge right now when it comes to their nutrition. Perhaps they have lost their jobs, been laid-off, or experienced salary cuts. How can they improve their diet while cutting back on their budget?

Cynthia recommended some simple swaps that can help you stay on your budget while eating healthier.

“Don’t skimp on fresh veggies and fruit, but rely on the most affordable options, which may include produce from your local farmer’s market, produce that’s on sale, or even store brand frozen options where the only ingredient is the veg or fruit itself,” Sass suggested.

Meat can rank as one of the most expensive items on your grocery list. Change that financial concern by replacing meat with pulses, the term for the food group that includes beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, said Cynthia.

 

And if you’ve never experimented with pulses, prepare to be pleasantly surprised at the benefits.

“Pulses are probably the most underrated superfood group in the market,” revealed Cynthia. “They’re very inexpensive and provide high quality protein in addition to fiber, antioxidants, key vitamins and minerals, and they’re versatile.”

You can choose either canned pulses that you drain and rinse, or bags to be boiled or cooked in a crock pot. To cut down even more on the cost, Sass recommends seeking out “store brands or bulk sections for healthy staples, like oats, brown and wild rice, and nuts.”

Sleep helps mind and body: What to eat if you’ve got insomnia

To sleep, perchance to dream…

Sleep has been shown to be beneficial for the mind and body. But right now, many of us have reported having problems sleeping because of the stress of staying at home and worrying about the future. Could changing your diet be the panacea that counting sheep doesn’t quite provide?

What you eat and drink can make a significant difference in the quality and quantity of your sleep, revealed Cynthia. And that includes what to avoid as well as what to include.

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Being out of your usual routine, homebound, and seriously stressed can make every night can feel like a weekend kickoff that merits a cocktail. But excess drinking can take a toll on your physical and mental well being. . 🍷 In my article for @thehealthy I cover 7 things you should know about alcohol during the coronavirus crisis, including advice from the awesome @drsusanalbers. Here are a few tidbits. . ✔️According to 2015 study published in the journal Alcohol Research, clinicians have long observed a link between excessive alcohol intake and a weakened immune response. The impact includes an increased susceptibility to pneumonia, and a greater likelihood of developing acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), factors that could potentially impact COVID-19 outcomes. Other effects involve slower and less complete recovery from infections. . ✔️It’s unclear how long our stay at home protocols will need to be in place, but too much alcohol even short term can lead to other unwanted outcomes. According to the CDC, excess alcohol consumption is tied to an increased risk of injuries, including falls and burns, which can happen in your home. . ✔️If you’re wondering exactly what excessive drinking means, it includes both binge drinking and heavy drinking. The CDC defines binge drinking as 4 or more drinks during a single occasion for women, and 5 or more for men. Heavy drinking means 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more for men. Most people who drink excessively are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent, and you don’t have to qualify for either in order to incur risks. . ✔️If alcohol is consumed at all, moderation is encouraged and defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 for men, and nope, they don’t carry over. One standard drink includes: 12 ounces of regular beer with 5% alcohol; 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol; or a 1.5 ounce shot of 80 proof distilled spirits. . 🧐 For the full article, including: + more on all of the above + Dr. Albers mental health advice + how to seek help from home if you think you’re drinking too much swipe up in my stories or see the buzz section on my website (link in bio).

A post shared by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RDN, CSSD (@cyn_sass) on

“Alcohol has been shown to interfere with sleep quality,” she cautioned. “Even if it helps you fall asleep faster you’re less likely to stay asleep or get a good night’s rest.”

Alcohol isn’t the only beverage that may affect your sleep. Sass recommends stopping all forms of caffeine a minimum of six hours before you go to bed so that coffee and other caffeinated beverages do not affect the length and quality of your sleep.

To improve restorative sleep, Cynthia recommends we all:

  • Enjoy more produce and fiber
  • Cut back on sugar, saturated fat (contained in some meat and dairy), and low-fiber food
  • Munch on vegetables at dinner paired with a food rich in fiber, such as beans
  • Use healthy unsaturated fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, for cooking or sprinkling on vegetables
  • Eat whole grains like brown rice, starchy vegetables, such as potatoes or squash, and experiment with a sprinkling of chopped nuts

However, be cautious about using too much spice at dinner, which can also apparently affect your sleep.

“A sleep-supporting dinner might include black beans and brown rice with a side of sautéed broccoli, or lentil and potato soup with a side of sautéed green beans topped with chopped nuts,” suggested Sass.


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