Monday | 11 May | 2020
By Dr Eugene Brink
Although there is nothing you can eat to completely immunise you against Covid-19, there are general guidelines to a healthy diet that are easy to follow during this time.
It’s not only about what you eat, but how you eat, that will determine the ease with which you and your family cope with the lockdown restrictions still in place. Knowing what and how to eat might not entirely bolster you against Covid-19, but it will make your life more pleasurable and bearable. Conversely, eating the wrong food will have a detrimental effect on your mental and physical health.
“Proper nutrition and hydration are vital. People who eat a well-balanced diet tend to be healthier with stronger immune systems and lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases,” says the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a statement on the matter.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, nutritional psychiatrist and the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, says this is a time marked by uncertainty, which can throw plans for healthy eating out the window. “It’s hard to cope with being quarantined and not reach for your favourite salty, crunchy snack because of boredom or feeling on edge. A few pretzels or chips are okay, but many people may not be able to step away from eating the entire bag once it’s open.
“Also, if you’re already feeling blue, the quick fix of cookies or cake will ultimately make you feel worse. Processed foods and shelf-stable items like baked goods contain a lot of simple carbohydrates that create a yo-yo effect on our blood sugar, which can drive anxiety and worsen mood.”
Fresh and unprocessed foods
The WHO advises us to eat fruits, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils, beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat, brown rice or starchy tubers or roots such as potato, yam, taro or cassava), and foods from animal sources (e.g. meat, fish, eggs and milk). “For snacks, choose raw vegetables and fresh fruit rather than foods that are high in sugar, fat or salt. Do not overcook vegetables and fruit as this can lead to the loss of important vitamins. When using canned or dried vegetables and fruit, choose varieties without added salt or sugar,” the world health body says.
It is also recommended that we consume mild amounts of fat and oil:
- Consume unsaturated fats (e.g. found in fish, avocado, nuts, olive oil, soy, canola, sunflower and corn oils) rather than saturated fats (e.g. found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oils, cream, cheese, ghee and lard).
- Choose white meat (e.g. poultry) and fish, which are generally low in fat, rather than red meat.
- Where possible, opt for low-fat or reduced-fat versions of milk and dairy products.
Limit processed foods and drink water
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says it is understandable that using fresh produce may not always be possible, but try to limit the amount of highly processed foods you buy. “Ready-to-eat meals, packaged snacks and desserts are often high in saturated fat, sugars and salt. If you do purchase processed foods, look at the label and try to choose healthier options containing less of these substances. Try to also avoid sugary drinks and instead drink lots of water.”
Also, choose fresh fruits instead of sweet snacks such as cookies, cakes and chocolate.
Planning is key
According to Naidoo, it is prudent to make a schedule or a daily meal plan. “A schedule is more predictable for you and for everyone in your household. Try to buy fewer processed, high-salt or high-sugar snacks. Save money by skipping the high-sugar soda and juices and go for flavoured water with edible citrus or berries.”
Lastly, plan and enjoy an occasional comfort food for a weekly treat. “Pick a day and enjoy whatever you want, just not all your favourites on the same day!” she concludes.
Uma Naidoo, 7 April 2020, “Eating during COVID-19: Improve your mood and lower stress”, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-during-covid-19-improve-your-mood-and-lower-stress-2020040719409.
UNICEF, April 2020, “Easy, affordable and healthy eating tips during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak”, https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/easy-affordable-and-healthy-eating-tips-during-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-outbreak.
World Health Organisation, April 2020, “Nutrition advice for adults during the COVID-19 outbreak”, http://www.emro.who.int/nutrition/nutrition-infocus/nutrition-advice-for-adults-during-the-covid-19-outbreak.html.
* All information was correct at the time of publication.