Healthy Bites: What to Eat in a Pandemic
Nourish yourself to boost your immune system (and give you an edge against Covid-19)
By Michelle Lau
There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting every aspect of our lives – from virtual business meetings, to limited outdoor activities, to early restaurant closing times, to outright quarantines. No one can predict how long this pandemic will last, but the silver lining of this restricted existence represents a perfect time to safeguard and improve your health while practicing social distancing.
While it is clear that diet and nutrition are very important elements of supporting the immune system in combating the virus, it is worth noting is that there is no individual nutritional supplement that will stop one from contracting highly infectious viruses like Covid-19. However, it’s still worth looking into which natural, whole foods we should all be consuming daily to protect ourselves better now and in the future.
The immune system is a highly intricate network of cells and molecules designed to keep the body free of the wide array of pathogens present in the environment. This complexity means that apart from nutrition, other factors such as genetics, stress, and exercise can affect our immune response.
In addition, prevailing evidence shows an correlation between an unhealthy lifestyle and viral diseases, particularly those which affect the respiratory system. For example, high blood sugar reduces and impairs immune function, and excessive body fat is known to disrupt immune regulation and lead to chronic inflammation. In the case of Covid-19, low levels of specific nutrients, such as vitamin D, have been recognized as risk factors for the virus.
While vitamin C supplements may be flying off the shelves, this is not the only nutrient that maintains the immune system. There is currently no evidence that eating certain foods, loading up on a specific nutrient, or following a targeted diet will protect you against COVID-19 specifically, but studies have found that certain foods can strengthen the body’s ability to fight off invasive viruses.
Getting infected increases the body’s demand for energy and nutrients, so a full spectrum of ingredients is needed to replenish the body’s stores. Energy is required to combat the virus, The body can use blocks such as amino acids created from protein-rich foods to produce essential antibodies, and a variety of immunonutrition-focused nutrients such vitamins A, C and E, along with the minerals zinc and selenium, can help regulate the immune response.
Luckily, these essential nutrients are easy, readily available, and super-economical choices for a weekly meal plan.
What immune-support-nutrients should I eat to boost my immune system?
Vitamin A cannot be cannot be synthesized by the human body, so it must be obtained from food. Vitamin A is essential for immunity, cellular differentiation, and vision.
What to eat:
Vitamin A is found as preformed vitamin A in foods such as liver, cod-liver oil, eggs, and dairy products, and as provitamin A (carotenoids) in foods such as spinach, carrots, and orange fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin C plays a central role in normal immune function, wound healing, and as a potent antioxidant. It helps to protect against infections and inflammation by supporting various cellular functions of the immune system.
What to eat:
Fruits (especially citrus), potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts.
Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because it’s produced in our skin in response to sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is vital for regulating the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in our bloodstreams and facilitating normal immune system function.
What to eat:
Fortified milk or juices, fortified cereals, fatty fish, egg yolk.
Vitamin E acts as a potent antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals that can damage cells. It also plays an important role in modulating immune function.
What to eat:
Vegetable oils, salad dressings and margarines made with vegetable oils, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts and nut butter.
Zinc supports the formation of many kinds of enzymes, proteins, and new cells. It is also essential for immune system function, taste, smell, and wound healing.
What to eat:
Red meat, poultry, oysters and other seafood, fortified cereals, beans, nuts.
Selenium is an essential mineral, meaning it must be obtained through diet. It plays a major role in important processes in our bodies, including metabolism and thyroid function. This antioxidant helps lower oxidative stress in our body, which reduces inflammation and enhances immunity.
What to eat:
Turkey, seafood, brazil nuts, mushroom, and grain products.
Last but not least, stay active
Exercise is known to have a profound impact on the normal functioning of the immune system. High cardiorespiratory (heart and lung) fitness is also associated with less respiratory illness, and better survival from such illnesses. Each bout of exercise instantaneously mobilizes billions of immune cells, especially those cell types that are capable of carrying out effector functions such as the recognition and killing of virus-infected cells.
As mentioned above, there may not be any magic beans out there to protect you from Covid-19, but there are small things we can do (and eat!) to make ourselves at least a little bit safer.
About the Author
Michelle is a Registered Dietitian (MSc.), nutrition educator, media personality, and the founder of NUTRILICIOUS, a B2B nutrition consultancy and communications company that aspires to inspire millions across Asia to eat their way to healthier and happier lives. Michelle and her team passionately motivate all audiences to Eat Whole, Train Smart, Live Full and deliver science-based nutrition information in fun and “digestible” ways. As an avid runner and obsessive home baker, she appreciates and prioritizes balance in all areas of life. “Change the world, One bite at a time.”