Eat well to ensure your body doesn’t go into lockdown
“Good nutrition plays a very important part, not only in leading a healthy lifestyle, but also in boosting immunity,” says registered dietician, Melanie Sher.
“The body’s immune system aims to keep you healthy by fighting off harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Combined with physical activity, getting adequate amounts of sleep, and practicing mindfulness, your diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and maintain overall health.”
Shani Cohen, also a registered dietician, echoes this, but cautions that eating right, while effective, isn’t the first port of call in the battle against the coronavirus. “No specific food or supplement will prevent you from actually catching COVID-19,” she says. “Good hygiene practice still remains the best way of avoiding the infection.”
Yet, while there’s no evidence to say that any specific nutrient will supercharge your immune system, good and balanced nutrition is important. “Nutrients are involved with normal functioning of the immune system and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet will help especially in terms of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals,” says Cohen. “If you get the virus, these can all help to decrease its severity and duration.”
If you have a strong immune system, your body will identify a virus, whether it be COVID-19 or any other, a lot sooner, meaning you’ll fight it more effectively,” says nutritionist Jake Axelrod. “Patients who are getting the most ill are those whose bodies are only identifying the virus in the lungs a week or two once it’s already in the body. By then, you’ll release too many white blood cells as an immune response, meaning you’ll probably deteriorate.”
Sher sheds light on the consequent importance of a balanced diet. “You should consume a diverse group of phytonutrients – the bioactive chemical compounds found in plants – to create a strong barrier against pathogens which may make you ill. These should be eaten as part of a balanced diet which contains lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and good fats. Eating three balanced meals a day during lockdown is more important than ever.”
When it comes to getting the right amount and variety of phytonutrients, eating a diverse mix of fruit and vegetables is key, says Sher. “‘Eating the rainbow’ is an easy way to increase the number of phytonutrients to which you’re exposed, which will support your immune system. Each colour has its own set of health benefits, and the more colours you include, the bigger your variety of benefits. Aim to eat a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and try to have one to three different colours on your plate at each meal.”
Cohen provides an example. “You can get oranges from your carrots, greens and reds from peppers and purples from your berries.”
Axelrod says that fruit and vegetables are important because they’re nutrient dense. Together with fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and whole proteins are also extremely bioavailable, meaning that your body will retain and absorb most of the nutrients they offer. “Then your body can build up a strong internal defence mechanism.”
Sher and Cohen reassure shoppers facing a limited availability of fresh fruit and vegetables because of panic buying. “If fresh groceries aren’t available, that doesn’t mean we can’t make use of frozen vegetables and fruit. They’re still packed with great nutrients,” says Sher.
Axelrod warns against going to extremes, as eating too many nutrients or fruit and vegetables can be toxic, causing the opposite effect than the one you’re seeking. “Overall, your immune system will respond well to just creating a general balance in your diet and overall health,” he says.
Sher agrees. “Aside from fruits and vegetables, a healthy, balanced diet includes lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and ‘good’ fats,” she says. “Avoid the intake of processed foods such as polony. While there may be fewer options available on the shelves right now, all you need to ensure that you have a balanced plate is a quarter plate lean protein, a quarter plate complex carbohydrates, half a plate of vegetables (one to three different colours per plate), and a small portion of ‘good’ fat per meal.”
Protein is vital at this time, says Cohen as it boosts energy levels and provides the muscle we need to fight infection effectively. “However, if you’re eating too many sugary foods, your energy levels will be down, you won’t want to exercise a lot, and bacteria love a sugary environment,” she cautions.
While the experts agree that a good quality daily multivitamin can be beneficial now especially in high-risk cases where it’s not medically contraindicated, they all advocate a “food first” approach. “If you consume a diet filled with enough protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals, you shouldn’t need any other supplements,” says Cohen.
She also points to the importance of getting sufficient vitamin D. “A vitamin D deficiency is linked to an increased susceptibility to infection. Dairy helps here – milk, cheese, and yoghurt.” Filled with natural probiotics, yoghurt is especially important. “Your gut is the biggest immune system that we have in the body, so if we can help build good gut bacteria, it will help curb any infection that we might be susceptible to like the coronavirus.”
Fatty fish is a good source of vitamin D, says Cohen. “Not only does it provide good amounts of vitamin D and protein, it also has anti-inflammatory properties as a result of the omega-3s it offers. That will be in any salmon or grilled tuna. The omega-3 will take away any inflammation that there might be in the body.”
Turmeric is a good spice to add to your food arsenal as it has anti-inflammatory properties and is shown to be effective in the fight against infection and against other diseases including cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Herbal teas which are rich in antioxidants are also advisable, says Axelrod. “The World Health Organization has also recommended drinking warm liquids because they neutralise the virus in the throat.”