The coronavirus pandemic has made us more conscious than ever of the importance of a robust immune system. Like all of our bodily functions, immunity is sustained and nourished by what we eat. But what should we eat to ensure our immunity is working at peak fitness level?
Livehealthy asked three experts for their advice.
Dr Arwa Al Modwahi is a senior officer in the chronic conditions section of the Public Health and Research Division at the Department Of Health.
Maria Abi Hanna is a Dubai-based dietician and founder of Nutrition Untold.
Dr Remy Shanker is a medical doctor with a master’s degree in dietetics and applied nutrition who now works in the wellness department at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Is there a special diet we should follow to combat Covid-19?
Dr Al Modwahi: The most important nutrients for boosting your immune system are vitamins C, A, E and B6 plus zinc. Everyone knows vitamin C is in oranges and lemons, but it’s actually more available from kiwis, strawberries and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and spinach.
For sources of vitamin A, just remember it’s in orange-colored foods, like sweet potato, carrots and apricots.
Vitamin E is in oils and nuts but you have shouldn’t too much of those because they are high in calories; a single cup of nuts can contain as many as 800 calories. Pistachio nuts and sesame seeds are good sources of vitamin B6.
Zinc is in shellfish, spinach and – a nice surprise – chocolate. Spinach is like a magic food because it contains all the vitamins AND zinc.
Probiotics are also very important, because they get rid of the bad bacteria and let the good bacteria thrive. You get them from fermented foods.
Maria Abi Hanna: Variety in your food. So many people miss out on certain nutrients because their diet doesn’t actually vary very much. You need to eat at least 20 different ingredients a day to get all the vitamins you need. If you follow Dr Amra’s recommendations, you will get them.
It is also very important to stay very well hydrated. If you get Covid-19, it’s recommended you drink up to three liters of water a day.
Dr Remy Shanker: Eat your greens is good advice but it’s more important to eat a variety of foods. Any food can be a superfood – it depends on your genetic make-up. Our bodies are constantly talking to us and telling us what they need, if you pay attention.
What should we avoid?
Dr Shanker: Beware of added sugar, because it causes inflammation. We might crave sugar because we’re hypoglycemic (low on blood sugar) but a lot of the time it’s simply because we’re bored or not hydrated enough. Sometimes we misconstrue what our body is telling us, so have a glass of water rather than scoffing a packet of cookies.
It takes 21 days to form a habit and 21 days to break one so wean yourself off sugar gradually. Mindful breathing helps: go to a quiet place and breathe in and out slowly.
Dr Al Modwahi: Sugar is so pervasive. Natural sugars that you get from fruit and vegetables or starch are fine, but don’t add sugar to anything. The recommendation is no more then 2g of sugar per 100g of food product. Salad is healthy but once you add certain oils or hydrogenated fats, it isn’t any more.
Maria Abi Hanna: Be aware of added sugar in everything. Many people don’t even know about it and don’t realize it’s there, although it’s becoming more common to see it listed on food labels.
One of the biggest initiatives of the Dubai government is the healthy restaurant campaign which restaurants include the fat, protein, carbs and calorie content on their menus. I don’t know if it will be helpful. Will calories affect the choices of the average teenager?
Anything else to help our immunity?
Maria Abi Hanna: Food is medicine. How we nourish our bodies affects what kind of diseases we get and we are seeing diseases we didn’t used to have and it’s because of overeating, under-eating and malnourishment. Overeating doesn’t mean you can’t be malnourished at the same time. In this region we’re seeing children as young as 10 with Type 2 diabetes, which could be prevented by diet and lifestyle.
Dr Al Modwahi: Lifestyle-conditioned disease among juveniles is a big problem. Yet if we go back through history, we can see our forefathers listened to their bodies. I look at my grandmother’s recipes and they are amazing – all the elements of what your body needs in one healthy meal.
One vulnerable group we keep missing are the elderly. What can look like Alzheimer’s disease in some cases is actually a vitamin deficiency, yet vitamin B12 can be stored in the liver for years.
Dr Shanker: When we think about immunity, let’s think about what we are made up of. Pick up on those cues and honor what your body is asking of you.
Dr Arwa Al Modwahi, Dr Remy Shanker and Maria Abi Hanna were guest panelists at the Livehealthy Festival on January 22, 2021.
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.