How to achieve a balanced diet for optimum immune support

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Generally, South African families are now home together for an extended period of time. There’s more opportunity to shift into healthy habits like cooking nutritious meals together, making healthy snacks and drinks available in the home and being physically active as a family on a daily basis.

“If it’s not already a focus of family life, this is actually an ideal time to prioritise nutrition and health,” says Retha Harmse, a registered dietician and spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa). “As lockdown restriction levels fluctuate; we will have more freedom of movement, but also more risk of contracting COVID-19.  Eating a balanced diet plays an important role in maintaining health and supporting the immune system, as well as all the body’s vital systems.”

A balanced diet is the best immune support

The media, especially social media, is rife at the moment with information-sharing about COVID-19, and there’s plenty ‘advice’ and recommendations that are not evidence-based. A feature of the COVID-19 fake news has been the touting of various foods, medicinally-used plants or nutritional supplements as ‘immune-boosters’, treatments or even ‘cures’. Retha says, “Of course, everyone would like to minimise their risk for contracting COVID-19, however, there simply is no quick fix to boost our immune system and guarantee that we won’t be infected.

Plainly, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet, and no specific food or supplement will prevent you contracting COVID-19. Good hygiene practice and social distancing remains the best means of avoiding infection.”

There are many nutrients involved with the normal functioning of the immune system. This is why maintaining a balanced diet made up of different foods that provide a spectrum of nutrients (for example, copper, folate, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C and D) is the very best way to support immune function. “In addition to a healthy, balanced diet, a general healthy lifestyle is also important to support your immune system,” says Retha, “This means not smoking, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and importantly, minimising stress, which is intense at this time.”

ALSO SEE: Get your flu vaccine now

How do we achieve a balanced diet for optimum immune support?

A well-balanced, healthy diet will provide you with all the nutrients you require to support immune functioning. Retha suggests going back to the basics of good nutrition. Here, she takes the South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines and shows where you can make some creative adjustments to fit the lockdown restrictions you might experience:

Enjoy a variety of foods

Although certain foods might be a bit harder to come by, don’t fall in the trap of eating only certain foods. Variety also means including foods from 2 or more food groups at each meal.

Be active

Regular, moderate exercise is beneficial for getting outdoors (if you can), stress relief and improved immune function. Try some of these lockdown ideas:

  • You don’t need big spaces for cardiovascular exercise – running up and down stairs is great; as is skipping.
  • Download exercise apps for daily workouts.
  • Similarly, there are many physical activity videos, including dance, martial arts and yoga, available on YouTube and other websites.
  • If you have an enclosed garden or courtyard-type space, play physical games such as handball, bat and ball, mini-cricket or mini-soccer as a family or couple, combining fun, bonding and exercise.

ALSO SEE: Keep fit during lockdown with your baby and stroller

Make starchy foods part of most meals

Choose whole grain, unrefined foods to add more fibre, vitamins and minerals to your diet. Good options to choose are whole-wheat pasta, multigrain crackers, brown rice and bulgur wheat. Combine whole grains with other tasty, nutritious foods in mixed dishes.

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day

This can be challenging while we are under lockdown as we want to avoid frequent shopping trips.  Here are some tips:

  • Choose fresh, whole fruit that is naturally longer lasting such as apples, pineapple and citrus fruits.
  • Eat fruits as snacks and desserts. Add sliced fruit or dried fruit to your cereal, muesli or yoghurt.
  • As some fresh vegetables don’t last long, blanche or cook them on the day of purchase and then freeze for later use.
  • Root and bulb veg options such as carrots and turnips, onions, garlic and ginger are longer lasting.
  • Frozen and canned vegetables are also good options.

Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly

  • Dried legumes are not only good substitutes for meat, fish, eggs or cheese, but can also be used as affordable ‘meat extenders’ to make meals go further. If you use canned legumes, rinse them well after they have been drained to reduce the sodium content.
  • Mash and heat up tinned cannelloni beans as the creamy base for a pasta sauce.
  • Save on your budget and make your own hummus from canned chickpeas.
  • Peanut butter can be used as a sandwich filling and can be stirred into porridge. ​

ALSO SEE: Quick and easy 4-bean soup

Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day

Maas and yoghurt will last longer in the fridge than fresh milk. For more long-term milk options buy long-life milk, skim milk powder or evaporated milk.  Fresh dairy products can also be frozen. Eat yoghurt, with added fruit, as a snack between meals instead of a packet of chips as this contributes to the day’s nutrient intake and does not contain excess fat and salt.

ALSO SEE: Tips and tricks to buy and store dairy during lockdown

Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily

  • Stock up on tinned fish options such as tuna, pilchards, and sardines.
  • Quiches and omelettes are an easy and tasty way to use up vegetables that might spoil soon.

Drink lots of clean, safe water

This is perhaps the easiest time to get into the habit of drinking enough water because you are confined to one space. If water is readily available during the day, it increases consumption. Keep a water bottle on hand, or a filled jug nearby.

Use fats sparingly

Choose vegetable oils rather than hard fats, and always use only a little, as fats are high in energy but provide relatively few nutrients.

Even for those who are still earning under the lockdown restrictions, the economic downturn is going to have an impact on the vast majority of South African households. Retha emphasises the importance of getting your household food budget under control, as this can relieve some stress. “Prioritise nutrient-dense foods that you know your family enjoys, and limit your purchases of treats, drinks and snacks that are high in calories but low in nutrients,” she says. “Meal planning, and keeping dishes simple yet nutritious, helps to reduce your food waste and gives you the peace of mind that you’re doing the best you can so that your family can maintain their health.  Always remember that the best ways to stay safe are through regular, proper washing of hands, social distancing and limiting movement outside of your home.”

More about the expert:

Retha Harmse is a driven dietician, passionate about helping to improve health and wellness to prevent disease. As a dietitcan, she aims to see wellness not only as a healthy weight or a disease-free life but rather as a life in abundance in all aspects of a person’s being. Learn more about Retha Harmse here.

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