Worried about Coronavirus? 7 Dietary Changes Can Help Boost Your Immune System

Like me, I am sure you are concerned about the Coronavirus? The good news is that you can recover. But, in order to recover, you need to boost your immune system and be in a state of optimal health. One of the best actions you can take to improve health status, is to rethink the way you eat.

The right diet will not only nourish your body, but it will also boost your immune system.

Understanding the immune system

Before we start discussing the diet and how to boost your immune system, it may be useful for you to understand infections and how the immune system fights infections. The video titled, “How does your immune system work?” by Emma Bryce, provides baseline information about the immune system. It will help you understand how complex the immune system really is.

Multiple dietary and lifestyle changes can help support and boost your immune system.

How can diet boost your immune system?

Diet plays an important role in helping you fight not just the Coronavirus, but all disease-causing microorganisms.

 Essentially, a simple healthy balanced diet can help boost your immune system.

You basically need to follow the principles of a healthy balanced diet recommended by the Health Promotion Board in Singapore. Eating  Healthy Plate Way is advisable. Including a variety of food through the week is also important. Make a monthly meal plan and list all the seasonal vegetables and fruit, whole grain and meat and alternative food options in the plan.  Every week use a different variety of fruit and vegetable options. With this change, you boost your immune system with a unique combination of vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals in different food.

This combination of nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals work together to boost your immune system and fight infection-causing microorganisms. This implies, a single vitamin or mineral supplement or special ingredient won’t work on its own. It may provide some insurance against Coronavirus and other disease-causing microorganisms, but for a complete immunity boost, a wholesome diet is important!

Following are 7 dietary changes to help boost your immune system:

Change 1: Replace refined grains with whole-grains

The first change you need to make, is with your staple food intake. Replace white rice or noodles and white bread with whole grain options. Wholegrains include brown rice, wholemeal bread, oats, barley, whole wheat or brown rice noodles. Wholegrains can help boost your immune function because:



1.Vitamin E, Iron, Zinc, Magnesium and Selenium in whole grains help support normal immune function:

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect healthy cells from free radical damage.  Researchers have also found that vitamin E can enhance immune responses and protect against several infectious diseases.

Iron  plays a key role in maintaining a healthy immune system. When iron is deficient in the body, red blood cell activity is impacted. Red blood cells cannot transport oxygen effectively to the spleen (place where germs can be fought) and to the lymph node (place where white blood cells are produced) if the diet is deficient in iron. Hence, germs cannot be destroyed and production of infection-fighting white blood cells is adversely impacted when iron levels are low. This increases risk of infections. Iron also promotes growth and differentiation of immune cells. Immune cell defects occur when iron is deficient in the diet.

Zinc produces and activates white blood cells which help fight infection. Hence, it is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. A supplement is not recommended, unless the deficiency is chronic. It is best to get zinc from the diet. Besides wholegrains, other food which are rich in zinc include oysters, crab, beef, dark meat turkey and beans.

Magnesium has a strong relationship with the immune system. It plays a critical role in maintaining normal immune responses. The actual mechanism needs further research.

Selenium in whole grains, mushrooms, meat, seafood including shellfish, poultry, egg yolk, cheese, nuts and seeds is a powerful antioxidant. It is essential for a strong immune response and to fight infections.

2. Whole grains support growth of a type of bacteria called Lachnospira in the gut. These bacteria produce short chain fatty acids, which are important for maintaining a healthy immune system.

3. Fibre in whole grains is fermented by bacteria in the gut. Fermentation produces short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are taken up by the intestinal cells and used for energy (butyrate). SCFAs also maintain the integrity of the gut lining. This is important, for keeping harmful bacteria from causing infections or inflammation. Emerging research is also highlighting that wholegrain intake boosts growth of ‘good bacteria’. These bacteria help boost immune function, reduce inflammation which increase risk of infection and support butyrate production. The overall impact on health are still unknown.

4. The unique phytochemicals in wholegrains exhibit antioxidant activity. These phytochemicals also complement those in fruits and vegetables and work together to boost immune function.

How much do you need to consume?

The Singapore My Healthy Plate recommends that you fill up a quarter of your plate with whole grains at each meal.

Change 2: Eat a variety of Fruit & Vegetables Daily

Fruit and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fibres which work together to maintain and boost immune function. As each fruit and vegetable is unique and provides different nutrients and phytochemicals, a variety is recommended.

Among the fruit and vegetables, the following fruit and vegetables must be included often:

Red, purple and blue fruit and vegetables which include berries, black currants, grapes, plums; red to purplish blue-coloured leafy vegetables; beetroot, purple sweet potato and carrots. These fruit and vegetables contain a high level of a pigment called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins possess antioxidative and antimicrobial activities. It is linked with a lower risk of upper respiratory tract infections and the common cold.

Dark green leafy and yellow, red vegetables, such as spinach, kale, amaranth; carrots, sweet potatoes and red peppers; and yellow fruit such as mango, papaya, apricots, jackfruit and peaches. These fruit and vegetables are rich in beta-carotene. Beta-carotene, an orange-yellow pigment, is converted to vitamin A in the body.

Vitamin A helps the body’s natural immune system work effectively, and fights infections and illnesses. It is also a power antioxidant that protects healthy cells in the body from free radical damage. Red fruit and vegetables like watermelon and tomatoes contain another carotenoid called lycopene. And green leafy vegetables and corn contain a carotenoid called lutein. All these carotenoids work together to boost immune function. Hence, a beta-carotene supplement on its own won’t help.

Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, bok choy, dark lettuce, kale and broccoli. These vegetables are a source of specialized chemical signals which can help your immune systems to communicate effectively.

Citrus fruits like lemons, oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit; and kiwi, starfruit, papaya, melon, mangoes, raspberries. These fruits are an important source of vitamin C. Vitamin C helps build and maintain healthy skin – this is important to prevent disease and infections. Vitamin C also supports the production of white blood cells and antibodies, which help fight infections. Plus, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells in the body from free radical damage.

You may argue, that its easy to get vitamin C from a supplement, but the supplement won’t give you the beneficial immune-protective phytochemicals you find in food.

The vitamins and phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables all work together to boost immune function.

Fiber in fruits and vegetables is important too.  Fiber gets fermented and contributes to SCFA production, and growth of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. Apples for example, contain soluble and insoluble fiber, both of which help boost immune function, as the fiber supports growth of pathogen fighting ‘good’ bacteria.

How much do you need to consume?

The Singapore My Healthy Plate recommends that you fill half your plate with a variety of fruit and vegetables at each meal. For optimal benefits, plan a weekly menu and include a different fruit and vegetable in each meal.

Change 3: Eat enough protein

Adequate protein intake is important for manufacturing antibodies. Antibodies are proteins in the blood which protect your body from harmful bacteria and viruses.

If you are a non-vegetarian:

Eat lean meat, fish or chicken at each meal. Meat, chicken and fish are also good sources of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is important for maintaining normal immune function.

Meat and meat alternatives or legume or legume-based products like tofu and tempeh, and milk or milk substitutes are all an important source of protein.

Also, include:

1) Shellfish like crab, clams, lobsters and mussels in your diet one to two times a week. These foods are a very good source of zinc. Zinc helps maintain normal immune function.

2) Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna or sardines two to three times a week. These fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fatty acids have a positive impact on immune cell function.

If you are a vegetarian:

You need to fit in half a bowl of beans, peas or lentils, or tofu or tempeh for protein at lunch and dinner. Milk and milk substitutes like soy milk, and nuts are also good sources of protein.

In addition, diligently toss in a teaspoon of roasted and ground flaxseed into your salad or mix it into your meal once daily. Flaxseeds are a good source of alpha linolenic acid or ALA omega-3 fatty acids, which can boost your immune function. As the whole seed cannot be digested, it is best to roast and then grind flaxseeds. Also, once ground, store it in the refrigerator, as it becomes rancid quickly.

How much do you need to consume?

The Singapore My Healthy Plate recommends that you fill a quarter of your plate with meat or meat alternatives like beans or lentils, tofu or tempeh at each meal. Eat salmon or other fatty fish like sardines or tuna two to three times a week or have a teaspoon of ground flax seed daily.

Change 4: Snack on yogurt

Yogurt with live and ‘active’ cultures can increase the number of ‘good’ or health-promoting bacteria in the gut. These ‘good’ bacteria maintain a gut environment that promotes growth of ‘good’ bacteria and destroys ‘bad’ bacteria.

It is also best to buy unsweetened yogurt, to limit calories from sugar. Add fruits or drizzle some honey to sweeten yogurt naturally. Also, select yogurt with Vitamin D, if possible, as Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system.

You can also get vitamin D from regular sunlight exposure. Health experts recommend approximately 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM, at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen. Speak to your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement, if your exposure to sunlight is limited.

If you are deficient, it is of essence that you consult your doctor and take a vitamin D supplement immediately. In view of the Coronavirus outbreak, assessing your vitamin D status is super important, as you do need to be fighting fit.

How much do you need to consume?

Just a cup or two of low-fat yogurt with live cultures daily will suffice. Alternatively, you could take a probiotic supplement. Daily sunlight exposure is important for boosting vitamin D levels.

Change 5: Eat a handful of nuts & seeds daily

Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E. As an example, a half-cup serving of almonds (46 whole), provides nearly 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin E. Vitamin E helps support normal immune function.

In addition, nuts are a source of zinc and selenium. These minerals play an important role in keeping your immune system healthy and strong. Nuts also contain antioxidant phytochemicals.  Research is ongoing to understand the link between these phytochemicals and immune function.

How much do you need to consume?

A handful or a quarter cup of nuts and seeds daily can benefit overall health and boost immune function.

Change 6: Toss in Garlic & Turmeric

Garlic contains a sulfur-based compound called allilin. When garlic is cut or chewed, allilin is converted to allicin. Allicin is unstable and it soon gets converted into other sulfur-containing compounds which enhance immune function, as they boost the disease-fighting response of some types of white blood cells. Researchers have found that regular intake of garlic can help reduce the severity of colds and flu.

Turmeric contains an active ingredient called curcumin. Researchers have found that curcumin boosts immune function by activating disease-fighting cells in the body. Curcumin also has antioxidant effects in the body.

How much do you need to consume?

Add a tsp. of turmeric to food or treat yourself to turmeric tea daily. Check out the video titled, ‘How to make turmeric tea?’ by Andrew Weil, to make an immune-boosting turmeric brew. If you take a curcumin supplement, choose turmeric that is combined with piperine, as it helps boost curucumin availability.

Change 7: Sip a cup or two of green or black tea

Both green and black teas are packed with flavonoids which are believed to boost immune function. The benefits range from an improvement in gut microflora, to enhanced resistance to infections such as the common cold.

How much do you need to consume?

You could benefit from a cup or two of green or black tea daily.

In Conclusion

Coronavirus is a reality and is here to stay for a while. Besides exercising regularly, focusing on de-stressing techniques, and sleeping well, staying nourished with a well-balanced diet can help keep you fighting fit and disease-free.

You need to eat whole grains instead of refined grains; plenty of fruit and vegetables and some lean protein daily. You also need to include some milk and milk products, or milk substitutes in the diet for adequate protein; and beans, peas or lentils if you are a vegetarian.

Including yogurt with live cultures will also benefit overall immune function. Adding in some garlic and turmeric; drinking green or black tea 2 to 3 times daily, and eating a handful of nuts or seeds daily can also help boost immune function.

Overall, with a little effort, you should be able to transition to this new way of eating and a healthier stronger you. And, besides keeping Coronavirus at bay, you probably will keep many other infections at bay too. The time to start making these changes is Now.  Good Luck.

Yashna Harjani

Yashna Harjani

I provide strategic nutrition tips on the approach to health and wellness linked innovations, communications and external engagement.

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