Nutrition & the COVID-19 Pandemic

The word pandemic has been on everyone’s lips recently and has left many people feeling helpless and out of control.  For many people, food has been hard to come by and considered a luxury, whilst for others, food has served as a coping mechanism, causing them to over-indulge.  Both scenarios can result in malnutrition, either in the form of under or over-nutrition.

Good nutrition during this time is of paramount importance, not only to ensure that you’re ‘fighting fit’ should you become infected with the coronavirus, but also to ensure that your immune system is at its best to fight off any other unwanted ‘bugs’ that might come your way, especially during the colder, winter months.  Some individuals live with co-morbidities, conditions that might increase their risk of severe illness if exposed to the coronavirus.  These include heart disease and high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes, obesity, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).      

So, what can you do to optimise your health over the next few months and beyond?  As a starting point, ensure that any chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and/or COPD are well managed.  This is done through good nutrition, healthy lifestyle habits and medication, where necessary.  If you need to lose weight, seek the advice of a professional, rather than embarking on a fad diet or quick fix that jeopardises your immune system at a time when a strong immune system is of paramount importance.      

Follow these three basic rules to ensure that you’re on the right track when it comes to nutrition:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet, providing sufficient protein, healthy fats and unrefined carbohydrates.
  • Eat whole-foods where possible, to maximise the nutrient content of the meal.
  • Eat a variety of food, to ensure an optimal intake of vitamins, minerals and fibre.

When it comes to promoting a healthy heart, the main focus should be on maintaining a healthy weight and being selective when it comes to the types of carbohydrate and fat you eat.    Weight loss of as little as five to ten percent of body weight is, on its own, associated with significant improvements in cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, all risk factors for heart disease.

By following these basic guidelines, you’ll lay down a strong foundation for a healthy heart:

  • Eat less refined carbohydrate/added sugar (this includes all the highly processed foods, confectionary items and those foods with ‘sugar’ listed in their top three ingredients).
  • Avoid trans-fatty acids (think deep fried and baked foods). These fats raise LDL cholesterol (the not so good one) levels and reduce HDL cholesterol levels (the good one).
  • Eat more of the healthy fats, examples being raw nuts, seeds, avocado pear, olives, olive oil, flaxseed oil and fatty fish (sardines, tuna, salmon).
  • Limit red meat and processed meats to no more than twice per week.
  • Limit the amount of salt you add to your food during cooking and at the table – rather add herbs and spices to the mix to enhance the flavor.
  • Eat more whole, unprocessed food (the type that doesn’t last forever – think fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole-grains and the likes). By doing this, you’ll ensure a good intake of fibre and heart-protecting vitamins and minerals.

Focus on foods that have anti-inflammatory properties, including berries, oranges, tomatoes, leafy greens (kale, spinach), nuts (almonds, walnuts) and fatty fish.

To supplement or not to supplement

Be wary of over-the-counter supplements that claim to protect you from the coronavirus.  Supplements are not tightly regulated in South Africa and so companies can write whatever they want on the packaging, without sound evidence to back it up, in order to boost their sales. 

If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough in the way of whole-foods, including fruit and vegetables, perhaps take a general low-dose multivitamin.  Avoid high doses of vitamins and minerals without first running it by a medical professional.  

If you’re finding it difficult to keep a good stock of fresh fruit and vegetables, opt for frozen veg and berries as alternatives.  There are also quite a few small businesses offering affordable delivery of fresh produce, with minimal waiting period. 

The ‘not so sweet’ truth about sugar

Some common comfort foods, especially during winter, are sugary treats like chocolates, biscuits and sweets, as well as their more savoury counterparts, crisps. With fewer trips to the grocery stores, we often tend to stockpile these luxuries, making portion control extremely challenging.

Why is excess sugar and refined carbs not a great idea?  Sugar and other refined carbs promote inflammation throughout the body, increasing one’s risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. Because sugar is such a concentrated form of calories, it can promote weight gain, as any excess calories consumed in your diet is stored as fat. 

That said, sugar in limited quantities, can add flavour to a meal and we all know about the ‘feel good hormones’ that we get from eating the occasional sugary treat.  The secret is to limit your treats to once a week by buying just enough for one treat per person.  Instead focus on eating more whole foods, like raw nuts, fresh fruit and veg and whole-grain snacks like home-made popcorn.

What should you do if you get sick?

Even with precautions in place, some people will still be infected with the coronavirus, causing them to become unwell with mild symptoms ranging from fever, sore throat, cough, loss of smell and/or taste and body aches to more severe symptoms including pneumonia and/or shortness of breath.

One of the most important things you can do is to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.  Limit caffeine containing beverages and alcohol as far as possible, as they can have a dehydrating effect.  If it’s something warm you’re after, opt for some rooibos tea with a dash of honey or warm water and lemon.

If you’re struggling with appetite, try and include smoothies and/or soup (for the colder days).  Add legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans) and oat-bran to your soup to add both protein and fibre. You can also add oat-bran to your smoothies to get an extra boost of fibre.  Instead of trying to meet all your nutrient requirements in 3 meals per day, split up your daily quota into smaller meals/snacks every two to three hours. 

If you’re living on your own, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have the energy to cook healthy meals whilst you’re sick.  Perhaps plan ahead and cook in bulk and freeze some meals now.  Start off by cooking two different meals and then each week add something new so that you don’t end up eating the same meal three or four days in a row. 

Some other options that don’t involve a whole lot of preparation,  would be to make yourself a platter of food, including slices of cucumber, tomato, peppers and any other salad ingredients you might have, as well as some whole-grain crackers and/or a slice or two of whole-grain bread and a protein-rich food like egg, tuna, pilchards/sardines, cheese or cottage cheese.

Another relatively easy meal to prepare is some whole-wheat couscous, canned lentils or kidney beans, some chopped up salad ingredients and a sprinkling of feta cheese.  You can also find pre-cooked wholegrains at a number of grocery stores – good to keep stock of in the pantry cupboard – you simply heat them up for 90 seconds in the microwave. 

Time to get creative

Ensuring a good intake of healthy food is really important during the pandemic and it is, for many of us, the one thing we still have control over.  Even with finances being stretched in many households, there are foods available that will give you the nutrients you need, without breaking the bank.  These includes legumes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and the likes), pilchards, eggs and oats, to name but a few.  Also stick to seasonal fruits, as they will naturally be a lot cheaper than those fruits that are imported. 

Get creative by adding pureed kidney beans to your standard muffin mix as an extra source of protein or roast some chickpeas in the oven as a delicious snack.  If you don’t already, consider adding some plant-based dishes to your repertoire of meals. You might surprise yourself (and your family) and start a new trend towards a healthier you.

Keep safe, take care and focus on the things you can control, as we ride the storm that is reshaping the way we live and making us appreciate the simple things in life. 

Sandi van Zyl is a dietitian living and working in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. She has a real passion for helping people achieve their health and wellness goals and she believes that it’s important to look at the ‘bigger life picture’ when devising a meal plan for an individual or family.  You can visit her website at sandivanzyl.com  or alternatively email her on info@ sandivanzyl.com

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