Cambridge nutrition experts explain how to eat well to support your immune system
James Bradfield, writing on behalf of the NNEdPro Covid-19 Taskforce, based in Cambridge, shares some insights into how your diet can support a healthy immune system.
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion in both print media and online about whether a healthy diet can ‘boost’ the immune system.
While unfortunately, there is no evidence for a dietary panacea, there are still a number of diet and lifestyle choices that you can make to help support your health and the health of your family.
This is reflected by the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasising in March 2020 that good diet and lifestyle measures all play a role in maintenance of good health and particularly for those without underlying disease conditions this ought to support a healthy immune system.
The points below are a few broad guidelines that are simple to follow and will stand you in good stead over the coming weeks and months. It is also important to note that these should be done alongside current government guidelines to only leave the house for food, health reasons or work (where essential), staying two metres (6ft) away from other people at all times when outside the home and handwashing as per official advice.
As more of us are spending more time at home than usual, it provides a good opportunity to dedicate some extra time to cooking and eating well. While this may evoke images of MasterChef-worthy dishes, genius is often contained within simplicity. Whether cooking for the family or just for one, simple ingredients used in combination can be combined to make a healthy, nutritious meal while also providing the satisfaction in learning a new recipe, trying out new cuisine or bringing one of your all-time favourites back to the table. Top tips to make cooking easier and more accessible:
Making use of tinned foods such as tomatoes, beans (baked, kidney or black), chickpeas and coconut milk can form the basis of many great meals. A portion of tinned tomatoes count as one of your ‘five-a-day’ of fruits and vegetables, beans and chickpeas are good sources of fibre (which helps to regulate our bowel habits) and protein while coconut milk is extremely robust and can be used for curries, soups and even pancakes. What’s more, these all have long shelf-lives and so are less likely to go out of date quickly so can be used over time.
Fruits and vegetables
Current government guidelines state that we should have five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
A portion is approximately the amount which fits in the palm of your hand, for example two satsumas, one apple or three scooped tablespoons of cooked vegetables. While fresh fruit and vegetables are the most obvious choice here, don’t forget that there are other options too.
Frozen fruit can be easily added to breakfast such as porridge or made into a smoothie while frozen vegetables can usually be cooked quickly in a pan of boiling water. Because they are frozen very soon after being harvested, they hold most of their nutrients such as vitamins and minerals which are key in maintaining a healthy immune system.
You can also readily buy tinned fruit, but a top tip is to choose that which is tinned in natural fruit juice rather than in syrup to prevent over-consumption of sugar!
You may be used to seeing protein on certain food labels. It’s a component of food, sometimes called a macronutrient which plays several important roles. One that many people will be familiar with is maintaining the body’s muscle mass, which allows us to physically move and stay active.
Protein is also a key building block required to make immune cells which help us to fight and recover from infection. Good sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish and dairy however there are also many plant sources of protein such as beans (mentioned above), nuts, tofu, grains and quinoa.
The benefits of plant protein include a higher fibre content which is beneficial for the gut and they have a lower carbon footprint, meaning they are friendly for the environment too.
We should all aim to have two to three sources of protein daily. When choosing meat and poultry, aim to eat more lean cuts of meat which contain less fat and trim off any visible fat.
As always, there are many people who will consider various nutritional supplements at this time to help protect them from various infections.
Though it may be frustrating, there is no one piece of advice surrounding supplement use in the UK in relation to Covid-19.
For those who follow a generally healthy diet which contains fruits, vegetables, enough energy, protein and dietary fat, most people are unlikely to suffer from micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiencies. There are some population sub-groups such as pregnant women, the elderly or the those with existing medical conditions who may be advised by their doctor or another health professional to take a supplement but this is best done on a case-by-case basis as advised by a qualified health professional.
In summary, there are no specific foods that are likely to either prevent or treat Covid-19. However, there are a number of diet and lifestyle measures that you can take to ensure you remain as healthy as possible which may reduce your overall likelihood of getting ill and give you better chances of recovery if you do.
The steps outlined above are designed to help in this process and you may even learn a new recipe or two or perhaps pass on new cooking skills to someone else in the home.
Stay well, stay safe and follow WHO and regional government advice such as remaining at home and social distancing, alongside meticulous hand-hygiene.
To read more about the NNEdPro Covid-19 Taskforce, including a blog on diet, nutrition and the role of micronutrients, please visit https://www.nnedpro.org.uk/coronavirus.
For more information about NNEdPro, visit https://www.nnedpro.org.uk.
For Change4Life healthy recipes, go to https://www.nhs.uk/change4life/recipes.
NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health is an award-winning think-tank with more than a decade of experience in nutrition education, research and innovation. Based at St John's Innovation Centre in Cambridge, it has regional networks across six continents. A not-for-profit social enterprise, NNEdPro develops educational models to improve nutrition in health systems, and conducts training courses and research studies.