Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

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Subjects of Interest

  • Food Security
  • Governance
  • Health
  • Sustainable Development

Healthy food choices during COVID-19 pandemic 07 Apr 2020

When news broke earlier this year about multiple deaths in China caused by the novel coronavirus disease, called COVID-19, I was worried about the situation. A Nigerian woman who has been living in Spain for many years said to me, “This is Europe, not Nigeria. The health care system here performs optimally. So, there’s nothing to worry about.” Of course, she was right in her juxtaposition of the health care systems of the two countries.
I got into Spain a few months before the outbreak began and I have seen that the country is far more developed and economically more buoyant than Nigeria. But right now, the story is different. Spain is one of the hardest-hit countries by the virus, scientifically called SARS-CoV-2, showing its affiliation with the 2002 SARS virus (SARS-CoV). A state of alarm was declared in the second week of March and the entire country has been locked down. Despite being in this developed country, I am now very conscious of my health, ensuring I don’t get sick or need to go to the hospital for any reason.

As the coronavirus death toll rises all over the world, it is definitely not a good time to visit the hospital for mild, non-COVID-19 conditions. Many hospitals, especially in Asia, Europe, Australia and United States, are inundated with coronavirus patients. To the best of everyone’s ability, whether in Africa or elsewhere, it is crucial to maintain good health to avoid the risk of exposure to the disease.

Even as we maintain our distance from other people, regularly wash our hands and maintain general hygiene, the nature of COVID-19 highlights the need to strengthen the immune system to limit the severity of the disease in the event that one is at risk of infection. The role of the immune system – which involves several interconnected parts like the white blood cells, antibodies, spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes, lymphocytes, among others – is to protect the body against diseases.

Immunodeficiency (deficiency of the immune system) occurs when the immune system is not as strong as it should be to defend the body against infections. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, reduction of stress and good nutrition contribute enormously to keeping the immune system in good shape to carry out its role effectively. In this article, I will focus more on how healthy eating and maintaining a good diet can keep the immune system intact. But suffice to say that no particular kind of food, citrus, vegetable, fruits or supplements has been scientifically proven as a cure or treatment for coronavirus.

Regular consumption of fruits and vegetables can keep one healthy and prevent sickness from becoming severe. Orange, grape, carrot, apple, banana, leafy greens are rich in vitamins, which are important for proper immune function. Malnutrition can impair the body’s ability to fight infections and illnesses, thereby, increasing the risk of death from diseases, including COVID-19.

Generally, certain foods have been linked to reducing the impact of some chronic disease conditions, while others have been shown to worsen the conditions. Diet and lifestyle have been strongly associated with diseases and medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, some cardiovascular diseases, cancer and so on. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), eating nutrient-dense foods and ensuring a balance of energy intake along with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight is essential for good health in all stages of life.

Consumption of foods high in energy such as sugar, starch and/or fat and low intake of foods rich in essential nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals contribute to obesity and diabetes. Children, especially those under the age of two years, are exempt as diets low in fat are not suitable for them.

A recent report from the Italian National Institution of Health (ISS), which evaluated fatalities from COVID-19, shows 99 per cent of patients who died from the disease had other pre-existing health challenges. For instance, 76 per cent of the cases suffered from high blood pressure, 33 per cent had heart disease, and 36 per cent were diabetic. Data from China also revealed that people with previously existing health conditions are at a higher risk of complications from the novel coronavirus disease.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases and mental health conditions – depression and anxiety – as worsening factors for COVID-19. Older adults and pregnant women are at higher risks, too.

In the case of diabetes, for example, the immune system is already compromised, making it more difficult to fight the virus when a diabetic person is exposed to the coronavirus. There’s also the possibility of a high blood glucose level favouring the establishment of the virus. For people living with this condition, diet that is naturally rich in nutrients but low in fat and calories are advisable. This means having more vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, which are, in fact, healthy choices for everyone.

High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking are some of the risk factors for heart disease, according to CDC. Unhealthy diet then plays a debilitating role, further increasing the impact of coronavirus. People with chronic respiratory diseases, including asthma, respiratory allergies, pulmonary hypertension, lungs disease are also advised to heed keenly to public health warnings to limit their exposure to coronavirus and avoid running out of their medications. The same advice applies to other high-risk individuals.

Whether you are at a higher risk or not, anyone can be infected by the virus. Therefore, we all must heed public health advice. Meanwhile, functional foods can help to keep the immune system in good form. Functional foods are foods that provide other health benefits that are essential for disease prevention in addition to the regular nutrients we get from food. This group of foods have additional benefits that positively impact health and overall state of the body and mind.

Several studies have reported the ability of functional foods to slow down ageing, aid recovery from specific diseases, prevent certain diseases and ultimately improve the operation of body defence mechanisms. Functional foods include foods that are rich in dietary fibre, phytochemicals and antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, polyunsaturated fatty acids, among others. Many of these properties of functional foods can be obtained from plant foods. It is, however, important to eat a wide variety of these plants to get the full spectrum of support the immune system requires.

For instance, phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemical substances in plant foods that possess protective qualities. Examples are flavonoids, polyphenols, carotenoids. Foods rich in phytochemicals include carrot, grape, berries, citrus fruits, green tea, tomato, pepper, leafy green, eggplant (garden egg) and several others. Phytochemicals also act as antioxidants, helping the body to mop up free radicals.

Free radicals are produced by normal body metabolism as well as external factors like pollution, cigarette smoking, medication, exposure to radiations and toxic substances. They are often eliminated by the body’s antioxidant defence system. But when free radicals are at a high concentration in the body, the antioxidant and immune system can be overwhelmed. That’s all the more reason we must consume functional foods.

Seeds and nuts such as bitter kola, flax seed, sesame seed, sunflower seed, pomegranate and so on, have been reported scientifically to counter the health-threatening effects of oxidative stress and damage caused by free radicals. They are good sources of healthy fats and fibre and other nutrients that are protective against heart disease. Higher intake of nuts is also associated with reduced risk of obesity. Spices and herbs such as ginger, garlic, nutmeg, turmeric, basil leaf (efinrin in Yoruba language), jute leaf (ewedu also in Yoruba), moringa leaf, curry leaf, to mention a few, are rich in antioxidants.

While there is no particular plant food that has been acclaimed to counteract coronavirus, daily intake of functional foods as discussed can help to strengthen the immune system, reduce the severity of life-threatening infections and keep many people away from hospitals at this crucial time of the global struggle to defeat COVID-19.