Nutrition and Covid-19: A Certainty amidst the Uncertainties

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

Covid-19 or the coronavirus pandemic has caught the world off guard and has tightened its grip. Perhaps it will go away soon or maybe it will stay for a while – no one knows yet. Whatever the case, we have to stay put and fight it off. And strength matters in any fight. It is clear that we are dealing with a powerful and elusive opponent.

So, how do we tackle this menace and what ammunition do we use? Physical force is obviously of no use here. However, the internal defense mechanism of the body is one of our powerful aides. Taking good care of our health is really important and one sure shot way is to embrace good nutrition. The purpose of this article is to bring some well-established facts and tips on nutrition and immune system to light in such times of need.

The proverbial saying ‘we are what we eat’ is a reminder that technically we are all made up of food. The foods that we eat get digested and nutrients are extracted to build and repair each cell of our body as well as fuel our physical and mental activities. In addition, a critical process is also happening side by side – functioning of the immune system which is basically our body’s internal process to ward off diseases. Our body is constantly at work trying to protect itself. And when we eat specific foods and drinks, it tremendously supports that process.

Maintaining nutritious diet is crucial for health at all times

The good nutrition principle is simple and clear for all ages – as usual, a nutritionally diverse and healthy diet is what we need. As much as possible, daily diet should comprise of wholesome cereals, tubers, pulses and legumes, dairy, eggs, variety of fruits and vegetables and plenty of water. Meat can be optional but utmost care is required to ensure they are safe and well cooked. Nuts and seeds are rich nutrition boosters that can be easily incorporated in cooking, baking and snacks.

Colourful fruits and vegetables are packed with protective phytonutrients

Plant based foods are rich in phytonutrients which are basically a wide variety of protective compounds produced by plants to protect themselves from germs, bugs and diseases. Interestingly, when we consume those plant foods, the protection is conferred to us too. They are anti-inflammatory (protecting against inflammation i.e. redness, heat and swelling in body parts) and antioxidant (protecting against damaging free radicals produced in the body).

Key sources of these protective phytonutrients include fruits, berries, vegetables, tea leaves, herbs and spices. Generally, the darker and more vibrant the colour of fruits and vegetables, the higher the phytonutrients content. Drinks or teas made by combining protective herbs and spices are bound to boost immunity (this is one example). The good thing is that a lot of such practices are already part of Nepali dietary tradition which ought to be continued.

Spices have health protective and healing properties

On the other hand, certain foods and drinks work against the immune system weakening the body’s defense mechanism. Unhealthy processed, refined and packaged foods and drinks that are also high in added sugar and/or salt distinctly lack these disease preventing properties. Same goes for alcohol intake and smoking too. These things put us more at risk of infection, and hence it is best to avoid them as much as possible.

For small babies, breastfeeding should be upheld. Its numerous benefits, including protection from infections, are well established (more here) And whether the Covid-19 virus is transmitted through breast milk is not known. Hence, World Health Organisation has recommended that even infected mothers can continue breastfeeding, while applying all the necessary precautions (more here)

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemon, make lemonade. This time of confinement at homes with family are great for preparing and enjoying healthy meals together. It is also an apt time to teach children about good nutrition, engage them in meal preparation and even learn together to grow herbs and vegetables.

Health benefits of herbs are well documented

And beyond diet, there are other measures we can take to stay as healthy as possible in the face of the crisis due to coronavirus. The given advice - limiting exposures, washing or sanitizing hands and maintaining physical distances as much as we can - need to be applied seriously. This time is also ideal to get the daily exposure to sunshine to increase Vitamin D in the body which also enriches our immunity. Adequate rest and sleep, moderate physical activity in the house and engaging in soothing hobbies such as reading, music, gardening, yoga and meditation etc. are also bound to be helpful. Ad hoc claims of magical prevention or cure and attempts to sell certain products however should be viewed with suspicion.

Overall, healthy and nutritionally diverse diet maintains good health and vitality. The food we put in our body is critical to determine our strength – not just for staying physically fit on the outside but also to have a strong internal power that can ward off or deter the viruses. As stated, foods high in phytonutrients rightly fuel the immune system. We therefore have one clear certainty amidst all the unsettling uncertainties. Let us embrace good nutrition like never before and stay strong from inside out. Besides, the awareness and consciousness about good nutrition always has far-reaching benefits all around. It is always a multiple win-win!

(More here on nutrition advice by the WHO for the COVID-19 pandemic).

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