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Eating well is one of the simplest ways to support your immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic, so what should you add to your meal plan?

We know that COVID-19 will be with us for some time, which is why optimising your and your family’s health is more important than ever.

“If it’s not already a focus of family life, this is actually an ideal time to prioritise nutrition and health,” says Retha Harmse, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa).

“As lockdown restriction levels fluctuate, we will have more freedom of movement, but also more risks of contracting COVID-19.  Eating a balanced diet plays an important role in maintaining health and supporting the immune system, as well as all the body’s vital systems.”

Don’t fall for fakes

The media, especially social media, is rife at the moment with information-sharing about COVID-19, and there are a lot of recommendations that are not evidence-based.  A feature of the COVID-19 fake news has been the touting of various foods, medicinally-used plants or nutritional supplements as ‘immune-boosters’, treatments or even ‘cures’.

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Retha says, “Of course, everyone would like to minimise their risk for contracting COVID-19, however, there is no simple quick fix to boost our immune system to guarantee that we won’t be infected. Simply put, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet, and no specific food or supplement will prevent you from contracting COVID-19. Good hygiene practice and social distancing remain the best means of avoiding infection.”

Balance is key to good health

There are many nutrients involved with the normal functioning of the immune system.

This is why maintaining a healthy balanced diet made up of different foods that provide a spectrum of nutrients that include copper, folate, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C and D is the very best way to support immune function.

“In addition to a healthy balanced diet, a generally healthy lifestyle is also important to support your immune system,” says Harmse, “This means not smoking, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and very importantly, minimising stress, which is very intense at this time.”

9 Tips for eating to support your immune system

How do we achieve a balanced diet for optimum immune support?

Harmse suggests going back to the basics of good nutrition using the South African Food-Based Dietary Guidelines and making some creative adjustments to fit the lockdown restrictions you might experience:

1.    Enjoy a variety of foods

Although certain foods might be a bit harder to come by, don’t fall in the trap of eating only certain foods.  Variety also means including foods from two or more food groups at each meal.

2.    Be active

Regular, moderate exercise is very beneficial for getting outdoors (if you can), stress relief and improved immune function.  Try some of these lockdown ideas:

  • You don’t need big spaces for cardiovascular exercise – climbing stairs and skipping are great workouts
  • Download exercise apps for daily workouts
  • Similarly, there are many physical activity videos, including dance, martial arts and yoga, available on YouTube and other websites
  • If you have a closed-in garden or courtyard-type space, play physical games such as handball, bat and ball, mini-cricket or mini-soccer as a family or couple, combining fun, bonding and exercise

3.    Make starchy foods part of most meals

Choose whole grain, unrefined foods to add more fibre, vitamins and minerals to your diet. Good options to choose are whole-wheat pasta, multigrain Provitas or cracker breads, brown rice and bulgar wheat. Combine whole grains with other tasty, nutritious foods in mixed dishes.

4.    Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day

This can be challenging while we are under lockdown and want to avoid frequent shopping.  Here are some tips:

  • Choose fresh, whole fruit that is naturally longer lasting such as apples, pineapple and citrus fruits
  • Eat fruits as snacks and desserts. Add sliced fruit or dried fruit to your cereal, muesli or yoghurt
  • As some fresh vegetables don’t last long, blanch or cook them on the day of purchase and then freeze for later use
  • Root and bulb veg options such as carrots and turnips, onions, garlic and ginger are longer lasting
  • Frozen and canned vegetables are also good options

COVID-19 can be life threatening even without the ‘typical’ symptoms

5.    Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly

Dried legumes are not only good substitutes for meat, fish, eggs or cheese, but can also be used as affordable ‘meat extenders’ to make meals go further.  If you use canned legumes rinse them well after they have been drained to reduce the sodium content.

  • Mash and heat up tinned cannelloni beans as the creamy base for a pasta sauce.
  • Save money by making your own hummus from canned chickpeas.
  • Peanut butter can be used as a sandwich filling and can be stirred into porridge.

6.    Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day

Maas and yoghurt will last longer in the fridge than fresh milk.  For more long-term milk options buy long-life milk, skimmed milk powder or evaporated milk.  Fresh dairy products can also be frozen.  Eat yoghurt, with added fruit, as a snack between meals instead of a packet of chips as this contributes to the day’s nutrient intake and does not contain excess fat and salt.

7.    Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily

Stock up on tinned fish options such as tuna, pilchards, sardines. Quiches and omelettes are an easy and tasty way to use up vegetables that might spoil soon

8.    Drink lots of water

This is perhaps the easiest time to get into the habit of drinking enough water because you are confined to one space. If water is readily available during the day, it increases consumption. Keep a glass water bottle on hand or a jug nearby.

9.    Use fats sparingly

Choose vegetable oils rather than hard fats, and always use only a little, as fats are high in energy but provide relatively few nutrients.

How to save money while eating well

Even for those who are still earning under the lockdown restrictions, the economic downturn is going to have an impact on the vast majority of South African households. Harmse emphasises the importance of getting your household food budget under control, as this can relieve some stress.

“Prioritise nutrient-dense foods that you know your family enjoys, and limit your purchases of treats, drinks and snacks that are high in calories but low in nutrients,” she says.

“Meal planning, and keeping dishes simple yet nutritious, help to reduce your food waste and gives you the peace of mind that you’re doing the best you can so that your family can maintain their health.  Always remember that the best ways to stay safe are through regular, proper washing of hands, social distancing and limiting movement outside your home.”

Could this help reduce indoor COVID-19 airborne transmissions?

For all the latest news about the coronavirus, click here.

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.