Healthy eating during lockdown

While no individual food, nutrient or supplement will increase immunity, a healthy, balanced diet, f

While no individual food, nutrient or supplement will increase immunity, a healthy, balanced diet, full of colour, is an important component - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We speak to two West Essex-based nutritionists about the kinds of food we should be consuming during lockdown and beyond

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the broad range of nutrients playing a part in immunity demonstrates the importance of a balanced, varied diet when it comes to maintaining a healthy immune system. What’s more, local nutritional therapists are clear on the relationship between what you consume and these organs and processes that provide resistance to infection and toxins.

“What we don’t maybe realise is that our digestive system holds up to 70 per cent of our immune cells,” explains nutritional therapist Laura Sanchez Behar from Loughton, adding that you therefore “need to have a healthy gut [aka the digestive system] in order to have a healthy immune system” and that existing immune cells, plus the production of new ones, are supported by what you consume. Meanwhile, Yasmin Alexander, a Buckhurst Hill-based registered nutritional therapist who runs the company Nutrition By Yasmin, notes that many of the cells, membrane and compounds that make up the immune system “rely on certain nutrients, such as zinc and vitamin C, which must come from our diets, as our bodies cannot produce these nutrients alone”.

While the British Nutrition Foundation says that no individual food, nutrient or supplement will increase your immunity or stop you from contracting highly-infectious viruses, the organisation offers a list of nutrients that constitute “key players in the immune system”. These substances, present in a broad range of foods, are vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, copper, vitamin D, folate, iron, selenium and zinc. Yasmin argues that with regard to immune support, there isn’t “a magic pill or anything sexier than following a healthy balanced diet which is full of colour”. Fruits and vegetables are essential for you and your immune system, she says, and Laura notes how they contain phytonutrients – thought to help prevent different diseases and be beneficial for health. The Loughton nutritional therapist advises consumption of “a diverse range of rainbow fruits and vegetables”.

Yasmin notes that people have a tendency to focus their entire attention on fruits and vegetables and that they “often forget about the importance of protein”, which is needed for growth, repair and to produce many immune cells. Discussing good immune system-supporting recipes, she says that aiming for a protein source and different colours constitute “the key components” for supporting these organs and processes. Laura calls for more plates where half the dish offers a vegetable intake and half offers a source of protein. “Try to ensure you are consuming a source of protein with all meals,” Yasmin says. “Think of eggs, chicken, meat, beans, chickpeas, hummus, lentils, tofu, quinoa and even good-quality protein powders.”

Because, approximately, seven tenths of the body’s immune system is generated in the gut, nourishing the gut microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria living in the large intestine) with colour and fibre is important. “To do this,” Yasmin explains, “you need to focus on introducing a range of different fibres into your diet, and the key is to get as much diversity as possible. Think fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, beans, chickpeas, lentils and wholegrains. This does not mean overloading your diet, it simply means making more conscious decisions – such as having three different vegetables with your dinner in smaller amounts.”

Drink is also important for the immune system. As Yasmin notes, “being adequately hydrated is really required for our bodies to function optimally”. According to Laura, “water is number one undoubtedly” when it comes to good drinks for supporting these processes and organs: “It keeps the body hydrated and clean and moves toxins away.” If it’s too plain, there are lots of ways to flavour it. “We are recommended to consume 1.5 to 2 litres of water per day,” Yasmin says. For something different, Laura says herbal teas are “very conducive to a good digestive system and therefore a good immune system”, and the nutritional therapist is a big supporter of green tea due to “its rich flavonoid content”.

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When asked what’s bad for the immune system, Laura discusses refined sugar, dairy products, coffee, smoking, tea (in excess) and processed meat, and she advises reducing fried food as much as possible. She would also recommend reducing foods rich in gluten. “No one food or drink will have a direct detrimental effect on the immune system, but rather patterns and overall eating habits,” says Yasmin. “Consuming a diet based on lots of processed carbohydrates and sugars, and little fibre, fruit, vegetables, protein and healthy fats, may create a pro-inflammatory state and provide little nutrients available for our immune cells to thrive.”

If you fear your diet will not give you all your required nutrients, a supplement could be considered according to the British Nutrition Foundation, which says that “a multivitamin and mineral supplement may be the best approach”. Yet, the organisation advises that “it is always best to try to get as many nutrients as possible through food sources, as a healthy diet can provide a range of natural compounds that you will not find in supplements”. While some evidence exists that vitamin C may decrease the severity and length of the common cold and there has been research into zinc supplements’ effect on this illness, there is no evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements can prevent or treat viral infections.

As Yasmin explains, many people find it overwhelming to make changes to their diet. However, as “the key to sustainability lies in making small changes, one at a time”, altering what you consume to better support your immune system need not be an insurmountable goal.