Is lockdown making you eat like a bird?

I was reminded the other day of a time when I was 12, when a good friend said something to me that has since stuck in my head. She said that if she ever picked at her food at the dinner table because she didn’t have much of an appetite, then her mother always told her that she ‘ate like a bird’. For some reason I couldn’t get my head around what it had to do with birds because my friend didn’t look the least bit avian. In fact, I knew all too well that she had become a frequent visitor to a new takeaway that she passed daily on her way home from school. Her weakness was their specialty of deep fried sweet and sour pork which came swimming in a sticky sauce. She told me conspiringly that she was never hungry for dinner if she stopped for an afterschool snack but what her mother didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. But as I was reminiscing past times while looking out the window at the birds feeding in our garden, I also thought that maybe her mother wasn’t too far off the mark.

It may just be a symptom of living through another lockdown but like many others, I have found my attention drifting to the outdoors. After noticing the sheer number of birds feeding in our garden this winter we recently decided to put up a couple of bird feeders. In pre-Covid times, I would not have been distracted by the goings on of anything feathered outside my window unless it also happened to involve one of our cats. However, I can’t help but watch the feeding antics taking place and they have given me a new perspective on what it really means to ‘eat like a bird’.  

Although we initially put out the birdseed to attract the storybook-like robins, finches and tits we had spied earlier in the week, the feeders have instead drawn in some real brutes. These monsters with wings come in the shape of enormous magpies and fat pigeons and the smaller birds don’t even stand a chance. The greedy magpies spend every day taking turns to raid the feeders like a tag team emptying them while the fat pigeons watch waddling below to catch any spillage. Like my childhood friend, I knew that the birds clearly enjoyed a good snack and I wondered if the lockdown had also caused their appetites to grow. Could it be that with more families at home during the lockdown there are now more bird feeders available? Do the birds behave just as we do when we pass a new takeaway and find themselves facing more tempting opportunities to eat? If that’s the case, is the lockdown also causing many of us at home to ‘eat like a bird’?

Without a doubt, the lockdown has greatly affected the dietary habits of families nationwide as the vast majority have been stuck at home. Some of the effects on our diets have been very positive. With more time to cook, more families have had the chance to sit down together and share meals when it had not been possible before. However, being based at home means that there are also more opportunities for us to eat while you are working or home-schooling over the kitchen table. According to research, this has given rise to one of the biggest negative dietary effects of the lockdown. There has been a whopping 40% increase in snacking.

Now snacking, in itself, it not really the problem because eating a mid-afternoon healthy bite can a good way to keep your energy levels up and ensure you don’t overeat at dinner. However, not only has the frequency of lockdown snacking grown but the types of snacks that most at home are reaching for are far from being a small handful of birdlike nuts or seeds. We are instead grazing on unhealthy food such as crisps and chocolate. It is no wonder that there is even now a word to describe when you inadvertently eat an entire packet of biscuits etc, when you are only meant to have one – a ‘snaccident’. This rise in snacking will be very familiar to many as it has helped to contribute to the increase in the number of people experiencing lockdown weight gain. But there is another effect of unhealthy snacking to consider that you don’t often hear about.  

Like my friend, if you spend too much time snacking then you may find yourself sitting down to a home cooked meal without much of an appetite. In effect, at the expense of eating too many calorie-laden nutrient poor snacks, you will be passing up the chance to get in some good nutrition. As you can imagine, over time, a bad snacking habit and picky eating can eventually lead to missing out on some of the essential nutrients and vitamins needed for good health and development. But even if you know all this, how do you stop eating like a bird during a lockdown when even the wildlife is at it?

Lose the temptations (or at least hide them)
It’s a simple solution but it does work to stop buying the unhealthy foods you keep snacking on. After all, if you don’t have them at home you can’t reach for them. But if you are tempted by something that you still need to keep at home, then it can help to at least make it more difficult for yourself. Place the tempting snack high up on a shelf that you cannot easily reach, or at the back of the deepest cupboard, in another room entirely or into the trusted custody of someone else. Chances are that you are ultimately more lazy than hungry and will be less willing to make the effort to retrieve the snack if it’s going to be time-consuming.   

Fill up on healthier snacks
Stock up on a wide variety of fruit and veg and store them in plain sight, ready to eat. It may help to prepare vegetables in advance by cutting them into sticks and combat boredom by including a wider selection such as mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas or mangetout. Store them in the front of the fridge where you can see them, ready to grab and eat. Use a fruit bowl or basket to place fruit strategically on a countertop or wherever you normally head for when you are feeling peckish. However, if you need something more substantial to eat other than fruit and veg, try adding one of these healthy options to your plate:

  • Some low fat plain yoghurt
  • Wholemeal toast, a crumpet or pita bread
  • A rye crispbread or rice cake
  • A tablespoon of (no added sugar) peanut butter or low fat cream cheese
  • A tablespoon of mixed seeds or a small handful of unsalted nuts
  • A handful of plain popcorn

Don’t forget to drink
Don’t mistake hunger pains for thirst by always drinking a glass of water before you reach for a snack. Keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day will also help to keep hunger at bay. You may find it easier to do this by keeping a water bottle by your side to remind yourself to drink. But don’t forget to practice good hygiene and wash it thoroughly with soap and hot water every day. If you find that you are struggling to drink plain water all the time, herbal and decaffeinated tea can make a nice change while still keeping you hydrated.

Eat regular meals
If you plan ahead and aim to eat 3 regular meals around the same time each day, you will be less prone to hunger and unhealthy snacking. But try not to leave too long of a gap between each meal to keep your energy levels constant, prevent tiredness and reduce snack temptation. If you find that you need to have a mid-afternoon healthy snack then also stick to whatever time you normally expect it. It may take a little effort to adjust a snacking habit to a routine of eating regular meals but you will soon be reaping the rewards of good health.   

Lastly, if you find that you still keep reaching for the snacks, then stop and ask yourself if you are actually hungry or if you are just bored and lockdown fatigued. To find out, I recommend that you remove yourself from the confines of your kitchen, take a look out of your window or better yet, get outdoors. Because if you look around will find that there is a lot going on outside among the wildlife. And I cannot think of a better way of distracting yourself from the everyday stress of living through another lockdown leaving the unhealthy snacking to the birds.    

In terms of healthy snacking for us, here’s recipe for Seedy breadsticks that will help tie you over until dinnertime and stop you craving for biscuits. They also make a good accompaniment to a hearty soup.

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