Stuck in an eating rut during the pandemic? Here's why dietary microrotation is so important.

By Julie Bensman
March 09, 2021
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Whether you're still on a New Year's health kick or just trying to clean up your diet, certain "healthy" foods are already likely at the top of your grocery list: leafy greens, nuts, olive oil, avocados, we know you know the rest. But even if you stick to these foods religiously, you could still be sabotaging your health. How? Your body needs a variety of fruits, veggies, proteins, and grains to ensure you're getting the proper amount of macronutrients and vitamins. Without dietary microrotation, you can be (and probably are) nutritionally deficient in several areas that can affect everything from food allergies to fertility, hair health to immunity.

How Did We Get Here?

"It's so easy to fall into food ruts, especially during the pandemic," says Marissa Lippert, a New York-based chef, nutritionist, and founder of AM//PM. "Particularly for working parents who are also trying to homeschool, lunchtime can be such a nemesis. If you're exhausted or bored with food, you often end up reaching for the same thing out of convenience because you're too tired to make yet another decision that day."

For many, pandemic-induced boredom has made its way onto our plates. When every day feels like the day before, it's only natural to reach for the same lunch again and again. In this way, our food choices are coming from both a place of convenience but also comfort. "Eating the same foods gives people a sense of control during a time when the world feels very unpredictable and chaotic," says Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietician, author, and founder of Middleberg Nutrition. "If you're overwhelmed with life, not having to think about what you eat feels like structure and simplicity."

But while food is certainly a source of comfort and fuel, it should also be a source of pleasure. If you have steamed broccoli every night for dinner, you're not only limiting your exposure to other nutrients but also limiting a potentially fulfilling sensory experience. Eventually, your body will become bored, not only nutritionally but emotionally. By choosing convenience, you're sacrificing satiation and enjoyment. And can't we all use a little more of that these days?

Listen to Your Body

Rotating what's on your plate can also illuminate certain food intolerances you might not know you have. Lippert uses oatmeal as an example: If you have oatmeal every morning for breakfast because you think it's healthy (and to be clear, it is), but you don't feel so great afterwards, try rotating that bowl out for eggs, yogurt, or another whole grain. In doing so, your body will tell you what makes it feel best—and it's important to listen to that.

"Everyone's microbiology is really different and we all need to take a customized approach to nutrition," says Middleberg. "I've seen people develop food intolerances from cutting out foods for too long and also over-consuming certain foods." Again, according to experts, dietary variety seems to be the best plan for your plate.

When trying to spot a food intolerance, many point to bloating as a sign of something wrong, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes, bloating is just a natural side effect of eating rich foods. And if we love those foods, allowing ourselves to indulge every once in a while is actually one of the healthiest choices we can make. "If we don't allow foods that comfort us or are a little 'naughty,' our efforts can end up backfiring," says Lippert. "Deprivation is never a good thing. When you allow yourself to give in to cravings, you'll experience a rush of endorphins and serotonin. And your body will bring you back into balance by telling you to eat light at your next meal."

Middleberg couldn't agree more. She says she gets nervous when a client shows her a "too perfect" food journal because a restrictive mindset can set people up for frustration and failure. "The more we think we can't have it, the more we want it, right?" she says. "A doughnut or slice of pizza with friends signals comfort, laughter, and connection, all of which are incredibly healthy for us. Some experts even argue that the occasional 'cheat' meal can shock the body and temporarily boost metabolism."

Feed Your Microbiome

If you eat the same thing every day, you're not challenging your gut microbiome, which is essential for immunity and proper nutrition absorption. "A variety of foods will keep your microbiome fine-tuned so it can work for you," says Lippert. "Keeping it varied will give you more energy, plus help with detoxification and digestion. Think yogurt, kimchi, miso, and other fermented foods, which all help to support gut health."

Microbiome health and dietary microrotation are particularly important for women, who require specific nutrients to help support hormones during different life stages. "Women need more nutrients like iron, calcium, and folate," says Middleberg. "Whether to support the reproductive cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or eventually, menopause, we need to pay extra dietary attention to those nutrients."

To Break Out of a Rut, Eat Locally and Seasonally

Pre-pandemic, many of us used to have greater rotation within our diets because we were eating weekday lunches out and grabbing dinners with friends. Now that we're working from home, most of us are eating three meals a day from our kitchen table. (And the dishes! So many dishes!) To bring some dietary diversity back into our lives, Middleberg recommends ordering from a favorite local restaurant a few times a week (if budget allows). "Think of your diet as a rule of three: After three days of eating the same thing, it's time to mix it up," says Middleberg.

Dietary microrotation doesn't just mean swapping out entire meals. It can often be easier to focus on individual ingredients. If you normally make a big salad with romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and feta for lunch, try substituting arugula and throw in some pickled red onion, black olives, avocado, and grilled chicken. "If you're able to get to a farmer's market or visit the more locally-driven aisles of your supermarket, you'll find seasonal ingredients to help boost your creativity," says Lippert. "By being more proactive and thoughtful about food choices, you'll reap the benefits of delicious, nutrient-dense produce at its peak."