I had originally planned to write about a different topic for this month’s column, but I think suggestions for healthy eating during the COVID-19 pandemic are more fitting—and likely to be so for quite some time. While I’m writing this in April, somehow I think this information will still be relevant in May (unfortunately) and possibly well beyond if there are rolling lockdowns in our future.
There are two concepts we need to review: how to keep yourself healthy and how to eat healthy. Let’s look at these concepts and how they relate to our immunity, which is a justifiably significant concern for most of us right now.
It’s no secret that good nutrition is an essential part of a strong immune system, but it’s important to understand that no single food, supplement, or vitamin will “boost” your immune function and prevent you from catching COVID-19. Rather, to achieve or maintain a good immune system, one must take a multipronged approach of eating a well-balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.
Healthy immune system
Certain nutrients do play an important role in the immune system. Among them:
- Beta carotene—found in orange foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, and mango.
- Vitamin C—found in citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes, as well as in berries, melons, and even tomatoes and bell peppers.
- Vitamin D—found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna as well as in eggs, milk, and 100% juices that have been fortified.
- Zinc—tends to be absorbed better from animal sources like beef and seafood but can be found in wheat germ, beans, nuts, and tofu.
- Probiotics—the good bacteria that promote gut health. Found in cultured yogurts and fermented foods like kimchi.
- Protein—comes from both animal- and plant-based sources like milk, yogurt, eggs, beef, chicken, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils.
However, don’t think you can get all these nutrients in pill form. There’s no substitute for a well-balanced diet, and the best way to deliver these nutrients to your body is by eating the foods that contain them.
How does all this translate to practical action in the kitchen? Start with healthy menu planning in order to limit food waste and limit your trips to the grocery store. Focus on simple recipes that don’t need exotic ingredients. Assess your fridge, freezer, and pantry to determine what foods you need and what foods you need to use up. A good rule of thumb is to use up fresh foods first so they don’t spoil and go to waste. Keep in mind that leftovers can be repurposed into soups, salads, and casseroles. Also, plan out which nights of the week you’re going to cook and which nights you’ll pick something up.
Before heading to the grocery store, always be sure to make a shopping list. Start with your proteins such as beef, chicken, beans, nuts, and eggs, then move on to dairy such as milk, soymilk, yogurt, and cheese. Keep in mind that milk and yogurt can be frozen for later use. Whole-grain foods belong on the list as well. Some good options include popcorn, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and cereals. Fruits and veggies can be fresh, frozen, or canned, but whatever form you choose, strive for variety. Potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, and citrus fruits are all good choices right now because they have a longer shelf life. To get the most bang for your buck, try to comparison shop and look for sales. Also, don’t forget extras such as pasta sauces, herbs, spices, and frozen items.
Water is also critical to keep on hand. The COVID-19 crisis may not have interrupted our municipal water supply, but those upcoming Lake Erie algae blooms certainly have the ability to do so. In the event of an emergency, you’ll want to have available at least one gallon of water per person per day, and don’t forget pets. Ideally you should have enough water to last for two weeks, but at the very least you should have a three-day supply. Also, it’s a good idea to have sports drinks on hand in case anyone in your family develops a gastrointestinal illness.
While I’m on the subject of gastrointestinal illness, continue to keep food safety in mind. COVID-19 is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but neither is a severe case of food poisoning.
Most importantly, try to make the most of the newfound family time this crisis has created. Let the kids help with meal prep, clean up, and even cooking if age-appropriate. And, of course, take the opportunity to get back to the dinner table and enjoy your delicious, nutritious home-cooked meals together as a family.
In a nutshell, to keep your body and mind healthy and functioning optimally during this crisis, it’s important to eat a well-balanced diet, get physical activity, practice stress reduction, get plenty of sleep, avoid smoking, and limit alcohol. These can be difficult times, but you’ll make it through by taking care of yourself and your family first.
Laurie Syring, RD/LD, is Clinical Nutrition Manager at ProMedica Flower Hospital.