With the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are trying our best to keep our loved ones and ourselves safe and protected. From wearing masks to washing our hands regularly to social distancing, we each have to do our part to flatten the curve. And while we’re doing everything we can to protect ourselves from the outside, we should also dedicate time to getting our immune systems in fighting shape.
“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.
A balanced diet is the best immune support
We’ve all seen the Whatsapp group messages that tell you to eat or drink various foods, medicinally-used plants or nutritional supplements as ‘immune-boosters’, treatments or even ‘cures’. But many (if not all) of these are misinformed and have no scientific evidence that can help protect you from the virus.
“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,” explains Retha.
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 Retha, “This means not smoking, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and very importantly, minimizing stress, which is very intense at this time.”
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.
Support local businesses like Yebo Fresh who deliver fresh fruits and vegetables straight to your door. There are also options for you to donate to families in need.
Regular, moderate exercise is very beneficial for getting outdoors, stress relief and improved immune function. Try some of these lockdown ideas:
- You don’t need big spaces for cardiovascular exercise — running up and downstairs is great; as is skipping, and skipping ropes are inexpensive cardio tools.
- Download exercise apps for daily workouts.
- Similarly, there are many physical activity videos, including dance, martial arts and yoga, available on YouTube (check out our selection of workouts while you’re there).
- 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.
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 bread, brown rice and bulgur wheat.
Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day
This can be challenging while we are under lockdown and want to avoid frequent shopping.
- 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, blanche 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.
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.
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, skim 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.
Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily
Stock up on tinned fish options such as tuna, pilchards, and sardines. And meals such as quiches and omelettes are an easy and tasty way to use up vegetables that might spoil soon.
Drink lots of clean, safe water
This is perhaps the easiest time to get into the habit of drinking enough water because you are confined to one space. Keep a bottle of water nearby so that you can stay hydrated throughout the day.
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.