I’m seeing more reports about how nutrition may help us fight against covid-19. No one is saying we can totally avoid the disease or cure it if we eat right. But the case for improving our diets to get through this pandemic is certainly strong.
Our immune system, after all, is made from the components we find in food. And like a well-tuned football team, a strong immune system needs the right balance of individual nutrients working together. Those include protein plus vitamins (such as A, C, E, B6 and B12) and minerals such as iron and zinc. And we get these substances when we eat a balanced diet that includes foods such as eggs, meat, fish, poultry, soy, a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and dairy foods.
Without a doubt, say experts, the foods we choose to eat (or not eat) have a profound effect on our immune system and susceptibility to disease.
Here are some ideas: Take a look at your plate. Does it contain a good source of protein? Is there a variety of green, red, orange and yellow (M&M’s don’t count) fruits and vegetables? Does it include whole grains? If not, a lack of key nutrients may lower your resiliency to infectious disease.
Don’t put too many men on the field. Supplements can help if our diets lack certain nutrients, but don’t overdo it. Zinc, for example, is needed to enhance our immune system and is found primarily in oysters, shellfish, meat, pork, poultry, beans and fortified cereals. Excessively high doses of zinc supplements, however, can actually reduce the body’s ability to fight disease.
Eat your veggies and other plant-based foods. Last year, before vaccines were available and before the highly contagious delta variant had raised its ugly head, researchers in the United States and Britain conducted a phone survey on people who had tested positive to covid-19. People who reported eating more plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and vegetable oils) had a slightly lower (9%) risk of developing covid-19 than the folks with lower intakes. And among the people who did contract covid-19, those who ate more plant-based foods had a 41% lower risk for developing severe symptoms.
Get your omega-3s. Also known as fish oils, these fats (DHA and EPA) fight against chronic inflammation. Some studies suggest the presence of omega-3s in our blood may help lessen the severity of covid-19. Besides fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, other forms of these fats are found in flaxseed, walnuts and in some fortified foods.
Consider vitamin D. A deficiency of this vitamin can increase our risk for getting an infectious disease, say researchers. Until we know more, it’s a good idea to make sure we get the recommended daily dose of 400 to 800 IU vitamin D a day.
Deal with stress. Yes, this does have to do with nutrition. Fear and distress can trigger hormones that drive us to the comfort of foods that feed us little more than sugar, fat and extra calories. Stress busters include exercise, prayer and meditation. And don’t skimp on sleep! Sleep fortifies the body’s immune function.
Now more than ever, say experts, we need to make healthful food a top priority to reduce our susceptibility and lingering complications from covid-19. Let’s do that.
Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to barbaraquinnessentialnutrition.com.