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FoodHealthFood, immunity and screen time in a pandemic

Having a well-functioning immune system has never mattered more. Expert Dr Remy Shanker talks superfoods, cutting down screen time and why she is against calorie-counting. What's a superfood? Anything that feels good to you.
Anna Pukas Anna PukasJanuary 6, 2021112 min
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immunityPhoto courtesy Remy Shanker

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us more aware than ever before of how vital it is to have a well-functioning immune system. Dr Remy Shanker is a medical doctor with a master’s degree in dietetics and applied nutrition and is also a wellness specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi. Here she discusses how we can make better decisions for our health.

How has the pandemic impacted the rest of our health?

The pandemic has been an accelerator in putting the focus on things that were already not working, like taking care of our nutrition and taking note of the small cues coming from our bodies. It’s about understanding functionality.

What about our immune systems?

While working toward vaccines is great, let’s take a step back and talk about how you can look at immunity in a different way. My view is that we need to understand our evolution and really think about the functionality of our health and wellness instead of putting our blind faith into slapping on one medication after another.

I decided to study dietetics and applied nutrition because I wanted to expand my horizons toward functional medicine and I discovered a whole new paradigm in wellness which is co-active (meaning we take responsibility for our wellness) and not just reactive. Let’s look at health in a more curious and proactive way.

What’s your view on germ theory versus terrain theory?

[Germ theory argues that germs are what we really need to worry about and we have to keep finding ways to kill them. Terrain theory argues that if the body is well and balanced then it can handle germs without getting sick.]

I’ve had a lot of mothers and students telling me that because they’ve been at home for a long time, they haven’t fallen ill or they’re not suffering from allergies. For a good while now, we’ve been living in a bubble so we’ve been able to concentrate more on our health and wellness. We’ve been thinking about what to cook, or can I improve my immunity by having a turmeric latte? What about functional compounds?

When life is going at warp speed and you’re rushing around, we’re not thinking about those things. Now we’re being more proactive and not just in the physical aspect of life but in the mental, social and financial aspects too.

What are functional compounds?

They’re all natural substances which support various body processes. The buzzword “superfood” is a more familiar term. The body is a machine that constantly amazes and functional compounds grease those wheels. Curcumin, which is found in turmeric, is a functional compound, for example, and so are things found in chocolate and blueberries.

What makes a superfood?

Everything is a superfood if it works for you. There is no generic guideline as we are all unique and one man’s food is another man’s poison. How do you know if a food works for you? If it feels good when you eat it.

Your body is constantly talking to you, giving you cues – you just have to listen to it and be in tune. All foods have some ill effects, even cruciferous vegetables (such as cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage). Tomatoes too, but you would have to eat a zillion tomatoes to feel bad. It’s all about moderation and balance. If you feel bloated or your skin flares up after eating something, then you know something’s wrong, so take note.

What about calorie intake?

I’m completely against the whole ‘calories in, calories out’ thing. It’s a very primitive way of looking at food. A calorie is a term to determine how much heat is produced via a certain food item. But not all food items are equal and we all metabolize them differently, because we’re all unique. Take carbs: it’s not true to say they’re bad for you, because it depends on how your body processes them. Instead we should start looking at the quality of the food we eat and not follow something based on someone’s diet guideline. Labelling foods good or bad is the worst way to look at what you eat. Food doesn’t have morality.

The UAE has such a takeaway culture

Of course, it’s easy to see the appeal of takeaways and there’s no harm in having one occasionally, but when it becomes a culture, that’s when we fall prey to not consciously embracing nourishment. Making a nourishing meal can be therapeutic – seeing something through from start to finish, seeing what goes on to your plate, bringing up all those memories we all have of experiences with food.

When you cook you develop a relationship with food. A tomato becomes a sauce, for example. Look at cooking as nutritive empowerment, taking control. No need to make it fancy, just making something nourishing is one of the biggest acts of self-care you can do. Start off with cooking 10 percent of your meals and build up from that.

Apart from anything, cooking is an indispensable life skill . We all need to be able to feed ourselves.

What about screen time?

Going virtual has obviously saved us time and effort but again, the pandemic has acted as an accelerator in showing us habits that probably never worked well in the first place.

We have a real problem with dependency on inanimate objects and overuse of screens. It increases stress, reduces focus and accelerates burnout. The way we use our eyes on the screen is the same kind of process that produces motion sickness, like reading in a moving car. When you’re sitting on your smartphone scrolling through social media, you’re simply not practicing self-care.

Screen fatigue is taking over our lives and it affects us in the same way as lack of sleep. And we’re seeing this even at a time of restrictions, when it has been possible to get a good night’s sleep in. Screens expose you to certain kinds of light and radiation that mess with your circadian rhythms.

I would encourage everyone to turn off their wi-fi for a while before going to bed. Turn off the notifications, switch off all devices  and put the ‘do not disturb’ sign on. You will really notice a difference. Maybe not right away but you will notice it.

What else can we do to give our eyes a rest? 

There are so many ways. Instead of watching videos, listen to a podcast instead. It uses a different sensory pathway so you’re far less likely to get the headaches and you will learn something too.

Move about while you’re listening. Go for a walk, take the dog out – anything is better than watching on screen. But do something you enjoy.

Dr Remy Shanker is a guest on the Livehealthymag.com podcast on December 30, 2020.

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.

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