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There were many important nutrition stories to ponder in 2020, from the effect of pandemic stress eating to the role of vitamin D in COVID-19 infections, to the brain benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.

Here’s a year-end look at four stories that caught my attention, along with takeaways for 2021.

COVID-19′s toll on health habits

The stress of a global pandemic and its resulting lockdowns threw our usual diet and physical activity routines into disarray. In October, a study published in the journal Obesity confirmed the health effects that COVID-19 produced, beyond the virus itself.

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The global survey of 7,753 adults, conducted in April, revealed that nearly four out of 10 people reported eating less healthy diets. Forty-three per cent said they were eating more unhealthy snacks and many had increased consumption of sweets and sugary drinks.

The shift to unhealthy eating was accompanied by an increase in sedentary behaviour, a decline in physical activity and an increase in reported anxiety.

That might account for the finding that 27 per cent of participants reported weight gain after initial stay-at-home orders.

There were inspiring findings. Overall, 21 per cent of people said they had improved their diet since the pandemic due to cooking more meals at home. Among them, many had also increased exercise.

Reflect on your current eating and exercise habits; if needed, set goals to get back on track and feel better in 2021.

Increased focus on immune health

According to a study of Google Trends data, published this fall in the journal Nutrients, searches for immune-boosting nutrients and herbs (e.g., vitamins C and D, zinc, garlic) skyrocketed during the initial COVID-19 lockdown period in March and April.

The link between vitamin D and COVID-19 was also the focus of much research this year, with studies finding increased COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths associated with vitamin D deficiency.

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This month, 140 international medical and science experts sent an open letter to world governments calling for “immediate widespread increased vitamin D intakes” to 4,000 international units (IU) per day, or at least 2,000 IU, for healthy people.

Eat a variety of whole foods each day – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, proteins – to provide the range of nutrients your immune system needs to function optimally. Include a daily vitamin D supplement.

Foods for brain health

Evidence continued to mount this year for the cognitive benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, especially ones plentiful in plant compounds called flavonoids and carotenoids.

In February, researchers from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center concluded that a high intake of specific flavonoids found in leafy green vegetables (e.g., spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens) and tea protected from Alzheimer’s disease.

Another U.S. study, published in August, linked a long-term high flavonoid intake to significant protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Berries, red grapes, apples, pears, kale, broccoli, onion and tea topped the list of foods rich in these protective compounds.

And in November, a diet high in carotenoids – especially those in leafy greens, tomato juice and tomato sauce – was tied to a lower the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, possibly by impeding the build-up of plaques that damage brain cells.

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Add brain-friendly fruits and vegetables – as well as green, black or white tea – to your diet in 2021.

High-sugar diet under scrutiny

An excessive sugar intake is a recognized risk factor for obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This fall, a large study from France suggested it also increases the breast cancer risk.

After controlling for other lifestyle-related cancer risk factors, women who consumed the most added sugars (50 grams versus 21 grams per day) were more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer during the study.

Added sugars were also under scrutiny by American scientists. After a review of evidence, the advisory committee to the 2020 American Dietary Guidelines recommended lowering added sugar intake from 10 per cent of daily calories to six per cent. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s no more than 30 grams of added sugar per day.

Make 2021 the year you cut back on added sugars. Start by reducing or eliminating sugary drinks. Eat fewer sweets and limit your intake of heavily processed foods.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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